Bright Shitemi, 28 is a father, co-founder of the Mental 360 organisation, a communications professional and a social worker, who is determined to change the mental health narrative in Kenya. He speaks to Maria Nene about it
Briefly tell us about yourself
I’m a social person who loves working with people and impacting their lives.
You’ve decided to address a thorny issue not only in the Kenyan society but also in the African cultural setting, what inspired you to do it?
I lost some close friends to suicide over a stretch of five years. I was always bothered about why someone with a promising future would end their lives. I sought to find out why and I learned mental illness was to blame. This led me to research on this issue. Looking around me, I noticed the problem was actually bigger and minimal effort was being put towards awareness and treatment. I identified stigma as the main problem leading to suicide and I started to come up with ideas to improve the situation.
Share the journey towards forming Mental 360
I met some friends, Nafula Kisiangani, who is a social justice advocate and David Waheire and I shared my idea with them. They were inspired to help and we set up this organisation. With limited resources, we have been able to make major progress and we have had a lot of impact. We have had talks in high schools, partnered with PAWA and been able to bring on board volunteer psychologists for first-line interventions. Within three months, 15 young people have come out about their mental health struggles and they have gotten help. These are individuals who were suffering in silence and couldn’t afford professional help or were in fear due to lack of a safe space where they could express themselves freely.
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How has Mental 360 been received by the society?
The response has been overwhelming. Through our programmes, we have educated about 600 students about mental illness and health and shared intervention channels with them. Our organisation is one of them. Like I said earlier, 15 people approached us and we were able to integrate them in our group sessions and to take them through therapy.
In your opinion why are we so afraid of addressing mental health issues?
Lack of awareness and information has caused our society to clamp down on mental health. When people find out that anyone has a mental health issue, they tend to think that you are insane or mad and you can’t handle any of your issues. As a result, people are scared of coming out because they fear being segregated.
What can be done to banish these thoughts?
Awareness and advocacy should be key features of accepting and addressing mental health. If people are aware those mental conditions exist and they can be managed appropriately then it will be excellent. If the people in our society who have mental health issues are open and they talk about the different mental conditions they have and how they have learned to co-exist with them, then it will be a good move. Various stakeholders should also come on board and support mental health organisations and provide a means for those people who are suffering to address their issues satisfactorily.
You recently had a talk about people in the creative industry and mental health issues, why do you think this industry is susceptible to it?
The creative industry is faced with a myriad challenges that may lead to mental health issues. The common illnesses people in this industry may be vulnerable to include depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Susceptibility is a complex issue but, in my opinion, it is due to the extreme pressure people in the creative industry face when trying to eke out a living from their careers. This coupled with the burden of expectation brought about by show business and reality may lead to mental health issues.
Where does Kenya lie globally in tackling mental health issues?
Kenya is a fast developing and highly sophisticated economy with a bulging population. However, it allocates inadequate resources to mental health facilities this leads to a low ratio of mental health officials and patients. This has led to a lack of awareness for mental health and a steep rise in suicide rates. Very few public hospitals have functioning psychiatric wards. At Mental 360 we are petitioning the Government to allocate more resources towards mental health. Secondly, our laws are structured in a way that attempted suicide is criminalised. Such people need help and not jail. Jail makes them even more frustrated and worsens the condition.
There has been an upsurge in suicides in the country especially for males, why do you think this has happened? How can it be addressed?
African society does not accept that a man is also an emotional being. Therefore, men are expected to be brave in the face of every life episode and turn out fine. This stifles many of them emotionally and they end up going down the road of self-ruin. Women are also genetically predisposed to be emotionally stronger so that may be the reason why they don’t resort to suicide as a means of solving their issues. We need to tell people that it is OK to be weak and reach out for help regardless of your gender. It is a sign of strength to seek help. This is why the country needs awareness on mental illness and health.
Which are the most common mental illnesses in the country?
Depression is one of the leading mental illnesses in the country; others are bipolar disorder, anxiety, and substance abuse.
Apart from addressing mental health issues what else do you do?
I run a PR and Communications firm. I’m also passionate about conservation and I volunteer for The Kakamega Forest Heritage Foundation.
When you were young did you picture yourself in the mental health field?
I’ve always loved helping people in society and addressing pressing issues that affect the population. Although I studied for a Bachelors in Business/Economics, I always knew I wanted to do humanitarian and social work.
You were once termed as a female magnet on campus, so is there a significant other?
I was an entertainment director in campus and this job entailed being social and not necessarily dating many women. No, I’m not dating anyone at the moment.
How would you advise someone struggling with mental health issues in a conservative country like Kenya?
I would advise the person to talk about any issue that they are struggling with to someone they trust. They should then consult a psychologist or a psychiatrist. Mental 360 can also assist this individual. We can be reached through our hotline number 0776-543099 or Facebook (Mental 360). We cater to those young people who don’t have a safe space or someone to talk to. Ultimately our vision is to kill the stigma attached to mental illness and reduce suicide, especially among young people.