On 27 December 2019, Dr. Victoria Mutiso from the Africa Mental Health Research and Training Foundation and I (Prof. David M. Ndetei) were invited to talk to the Itetani Location community on mental health. One of the 47 counties in Kenya, it is located in one of the sub-counties of Makueni County, about 100 Kilometers South East of Nairobi. According to the 2019 census, Itetani Location has a population of about seven thousand (7,000).
Within Itetani Location they have a community development organisation known as TAA. The word TAA has a double meaning in the local community, a verb and a noun. It means to mentor towards success. It also means a light strategically placed to illuminate the pathway to success.
The TAA organisation has three pillars for the community: education, the local economy, and social harmony and connectedness. They wanted to know how (not if) good mental health had a role in facilitating and connecting those pillars. This was a wow moment! How did this typical rural community, with not a single mental health specialist in their midst, get to think like this?! They said they did not need to be told by anybody that poor mental health had something to do with rampant substance abuse, school dropout, suicide, homicide, family issues and crime and that all these were negatively impacting their social, educational and economic structures. They reasoned that people with well minds would not be involved in these social "evils".
So we sat back to hear from them what they wanted from us.
They knew there were problems. What they didn't know was how to address those problems given their limited resources. They had only themselves to set up services for the whole community - ranging from individual, family, school and other areas covering the whole life cycle. It was most gratifying to hear one of their leaders argue “A healthy community is a form of living democracy: people working together to address what matters to them."
The attendees at the meeting included local community opinion leaders, parents, teachers, community members, the youth (including in and out-of-school youth), clergy and representatives of government administration and policy makers. We saw parents and school children listening to one another with mutual respect - constructively discussing what they thought was the problem, its cause and how the solution would be found through dialogue. We heard couples talk about responsible parenthood and how they can learn from other parents. We heard an acknowledgement that sometimes it is their own culture that can have a negative impact and that therefore needs to change.
We were invited to talk to the Itetani Location community, but in the end, our job was to moderate the dialogue. They invited us back for further discussion and in particular to help them address mental health issues in their community. We plan to do exactly that, and to work with them to prioritise their needs going forward.
ACPHD (Editor) (2004): A Handbook for Participatory Community Assessments Experiences from Alameda County. Oakland: ACPHD. URL FAO (Editor) (2001): Field Level Handbook. SEAGA Socio-Economic and Gender Analysis Programme. Rom: FAO. URL
Author: Prof. David M. Ndetei, University of Nairobi and Africa Mental Health Research and Training Foundation