Mental Health Matters: Understanding and Addressing Common Issues Affecting Communities in East Africa

On 30 January 2023,  40 participants from the Lightup Impact Community gathered for the launch of our Experts Discussion series, starting with an engaging session on Mental Health. The discussion was led and moderated by Marlene Kawira Kinuya from Afrikala Arts and Amisa Rashid from the Nivishe Foundation. Both of whom are members of the Lightup Impact Community from Kenya.


Mental health is an integral part of being healthy and is crucial in our personal development and socialization – so much so that the absence of a healthy state of mind and psyche can have detrimental effects on our physical health. Mental health is an area of massive concern globally, and Kenya is no exception (WHO). Impoverished communities in Kenya are heavily affected by a lack of support for people affected by mental health conditions, including awareness about what these conditions are, how to identify them, and how to get help. Our experts opened up to our community to share more about the groundbreaking work they are doing to inspire our founders and shine a light on these issues in their local communities. 

The general situation in Kenya

Mental health is a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn and work well, and contribute to their community (WHO). 


In Kenya, a staggering 1 in 4 people who seek healthcare have a mental condition (WHO), including depression, anxiety disorders, suicidal thoughts, and post traumatic stress disorder. Additionally, the Kenyan national commission of human rights estimates that 40% and 25% of patients receiving hospital care (inpatients) and those receiving care elsewhere (outpatients) are affected by mental health conditions (WHO), respectively. Still, data on the prevalence of mental health conditions in Kenya and resources to support patients are limited.


Kibera is one of the biggest slums in Kenya and is extremely poverty-stricken. As a result, it has far too many cases of sexual assault and stigmatization that have led to higher rates of mental health conditions in the region. Young girls, especially, face cases of misinformation leading to teenage pregnancies, the circumstances of which frequently drive the development of mental disorders. Moreover, mental healthcare for people living in Kibera has been described as inadequate, inefficient, and inequitable. This significant treatment gap has only worsened an already devastating situation. 

Life after the COVID-19 pandemic

In July 2020, the Kenyan task force on mental health recommended that mental disorders be declared a national emergency of epidemic proportions. They emphasized that mental health needs to be prioritized in the public health- and socioeconomic agenda. Depression and anxiety disorders are the leading mental disorders diagnosed in Kenya, followed by substance use disorders. Of great concern is that the abuse of legal or illegal substances like alcohol or drugs is most prevalent in the 18-29-year-old age group.


Kenyans living with mental disorders often experience stigma on multiple levels. Stereotypes surrounding those with mental disorders lead to public stigmatization, especially since many people associate mental disorders with witchcraft and evil. Furthermore, those struggling with mental disorders may internalize others’ negative perceptions of them, impacting how they view themselves and their overall quality of life since it can lead to loneliness and isolation. Stigma is a factor preventing Kenyans from seeking help and receiving efficient treatment.

“Everyone is dealing with something they are not so comfortable talking about, and the youth are more affected…”

With the pandemic came new challenges: loss of livelihoods, loss of loved ones, and change in normal life patterns. Everyone is dealing with something they are not so comfortable talking about, and the youth are more affected because they had certain expectations for their lives after school. Some of them thought life would be easier for them and their families after graduating from college or university because they had furthered their education. But the job market is flooded with more qualified individuals and fewer opportunities, making people feel more and more hopeless every day. The situation is even worse for those without an education or source of income; they have to survive and provide for their families by any means necessary. This means taking up labor-intensive manual work with little pay that can only provide for the basic needs to sustain survival for themselves and their families. This all-too-familiar vicious cycle of poverty impedes their efforts to pull themselves and their loved ones out of a bad situation – not to mention the toll the situation has on their mental health.

The Nivishe Foundation

The Nivishe Foundation is a grassroots organization based in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum area that focuses on creating mental health awareness and breaking the stigma against mental disorders at the grassroots level. With the alarming rise of mental disorders and their corollary, stigma, and misinformation, Nivishe strives to build community resilience in mental health through community-based interventions, catering predominantly to women, young girls, and the youth in Kibera. 

During the discussion, Amisa (Nivishe’s founder) shared how Nivishe eagerly integrates both health and education, two areas full of disparity and inequalities, into their formal and informal approaches. Nivishe impacts the lives of over 4 000 women and 10 000 youth annually through its various programs, including mental health advocacy and community-based mental health interventions. This has reduced cases of violence by 40% and increased the number of people seeking mental health services at the grassroots level. 


As an all-inclusive organization, Nivishe offers psychosocial disability programs, such as mental health services by sign language, serving hundreds of individuals with hearing impairments. They also offer mental health and psychosocial support to young girls and teen mothers in addition to economic empowerment and computer literacy skills.  

To bridge the lack of information on mental health in Kenya, Nivishe creates local resources and knowledge banks on relevant topics. To actualize this, Nivishe has partnered with institutes like Aga Khan University – Brain and Mind Institute to improve mental health in informal settlements. For the Nivishe team, “working with this community has been such an inspiring process.” They are “happy to see the adolescent girls and teen mothers religiously showing up for these sessions and even seeing a change in attitude for them.”  

The Nivishe Team

In 2019, Nivishe was awarded a grant by the Youth Engagement Society. However, a lack of goodwill and intention in supporting and funding mental health work is one of the core challenges that mental health organizations like the Nivishe Foundation face. An essential part of their resource mobilization strategy, therefore, involves educating funding bodies on the importance of supporting mental health work despite the fact that it might take years for the impact to be documented; most funding bodies expect development work to have a fast-paced impact. This general lack of goodwill and cooperation extends to key governmental stakeholders, like government institutions (hospitals, clinics), where suitable policies for mental health might be in place but are not implemented, making it even more difficult to achieve accessible and affordable mental health care. 


During our Community Meetup, Nivishe spoke about the joy of positively changing the lives of young girls and teen mothers. They help by building life- and digital literacy skills and teaching economic empowerment. Job linkages and technical skills are critical parts of this process towards economic capacitation and improved quality of life. Moreover, Nivishe uses community radio stations to educate, engage, and inform the public about mental health in their local languages and local contexts. They have received tremendously positive feedback, and listeners frequently call in with encouraging messages. 

Afrikala Art

Afrikala Art is a social enterprise consisting of a group of young, out-of-the-box thinkers redefining self- and creative expression, particularly among the youth and creatives. It involves young individuals who form a holistic content creation creative team that champions mental health and creativity through engagement, support groups, programs, and initiatives.


Marlene is the founder of Afrikala Art and an experienced communication, humanitarian, and development consultant who actively trains professionals in monitoring evaluation accountability and learning at the Humanitarian Global Institute. To boot, she is a passionate mental health advocate pioneering and innovating solutions and programs at Afrikala Art and its subsidiaries. 

The Afrikala team supporting mental health

To meet program requirements, Afrikala Art offers a battery of services, including communication, media coverage, and content creation for official, personal, business, entertainment, and organizational purposes. They support and engage creatives by helping others to creatively tell their stories or package their content for use. They also engage their creatives to offer brand/image and social media management services to grassroots organizations all over Kenya.

“Afrikala Art is a creative haven where art and talent meet appreciation and empowerment.” – Marlene

Afrikala Art is pioneering a mental health podcast called Mental Talk to spark and drive important conversations in and around mental health. They hope this will help spread awareness and create a safe space for the youth and creatives to learn new things and share their experiences. Afrikala Art has also launched The Creatives Doormat, a new podcast and corporate social responsibility project for creatives. 


Mental health can take on many forms: sometimes it can be the talkative friend, relative, or colleague going silent, or it might be someone avoiding conversations or smiling to avoid the “Are you okay?” question.  Experiencing mental health challenges is not that easy but it is a normal part of life. So why not encourage people to speak out and listen and support those seeking help? 

“Someone told me the other day that for Kenyans, something is never serious till it affects a loved one, but why should we wait till it gets to that point? Checking in is not that hard, especially in this age of digital communication. Send someone that message, make that call, write that email, make the visit, share kindness, and smile often.” – Marlene

What our members had to say

It was great to hear from our members, too. They shared how they experience mental health challenges in their communities, especially as an early-stage founder; it can be stressful to create visibility and gain credibility. Many shared that as a founder, you don’t simply create impact, you have to learn and master the skills to develop, present, and execute your ideas. All of this can create chaos in the mind, leading to mental health challenges. Marlene took the members through some techniques for self-care to calm their minds and shared several other tips on how to prevent and reduce stress for leaders of social organizations:


  • Set boundaries
  • Refuel yourself
  • Get outside
  • Practice kindness
  • Be aware of your mindset
  • Reflect
  • Celebrate


To the surprise of the founders, they already knew about some or all of the tips. However, only a few actually practice them. They all agreed that it is indeed important to take care of one’s mental health, particularly as a leader who wants to create more impact in their community. 

What our member organizations thought of the session

Most of sub-Saharan Africa suffers similar challenges across borders. We can imagine the millions affected by mental health issues. Our mental health affects how we think, feel, and act. It impacts our quality of life, productivity, relationships, and life experiences. Good mental health is important as it helps us enjoy life, effectively cope with the stresses of life, and realize our full potential. 


If you are struggling with mental health issues or you know someone who is please reach out to Nivishe by telephone (+254741706638) – you are not alone. 

Next month

In our next community meetup blog post, you can expect to learn more about governance, impact reporting, and the theory of change. This expert discussion was led by Erastus Angienda, Family Support Community Based Initiatives (FASCOBI), Collins Mureithi, Centre for Adolescent and Young Change Makers (CEYA.CFM), and Mary Opot, Winam Grassroots.

Authors: Marlene Kawira Kinyua, Afrikala Arts and Amisa Rashid,  Nivishe Foundation.

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We increase the visibility and impact of social organizations with a focus on women’s health and gender equality in Kenya. We support the growth of our founders through tailored mentoring and networking opportunities