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Destigmatizing mental health

By Isabelle Jeanson

Communications Freelancer

May 3, 2023

SIXKNM outreach program in Kenya transforms lives of mental health patients and involves the community to fight against stigma.

Providing mental health care is a growing priority in many countries, yet stigma and discrimination continue to be experienced by many patients around the world. In Kenya, stigma against people with mental health issues is deeply entrenched in communities, and resources to treat patients are often unavailable or stretched thin. To counter this situation, the organization “Six Key Nature Matters,” also known as SIXKNM, was created in 2012 to create awareness about mental health issues and provide resources to underserved rural regions in Kenya.  By focusing their activities on reducing stigma and discrimination against mental health patients, SIXKNM encourages families to seek the support they need to help care for their loved ones.

SIXKNM was awarded funding by Madiro for a year-long mental health outreach program which came to a close in March 2023*. Faith Mugendo-Danger, a mother who benefited from this project, explains how volunteers helped turn her life around. Faith was suffering from debilitating depression when she first met a Community Health Volunteer from SIXKNM.

“As a self-employed single mother, the financial stress, hopelessness and worry exacerbated my struggle with depression and anxiety. SIXKNM has been a Godsend! I can’t say or thank this incredible organization enough for how it has blessed and enriched the lives of me and my children during one of the toughest times in my life. I ran away from my marriage because my husband was abusive and tried to kill me and my children. I couldn’t talk with people, I hated everyone, and I was violent to my children. I have always lived with thoughts of committing suicide. The counselling support, compassion, and empathy about my situation was the ray of hope I desperately needed. I am proof great things can happen; I no longer think of killing myself. I’m now back to my small business and I have made supportive friends.”

Faith is one of the thousands of individuals who have received support and care from SIXKNM teams. Since the inception of the mental health program over a decade ago, SIXKNM Community Health Volunteers (CHV) have provided information and training to over 3000 families, to help them learn how to care for their family members in need of mental health support. Community Health Volunteer Lemmy Kariuki explains how he reached out and visited the homes of families struggling to cope with a family member experiencing mental health issues.

“I started working as a Community Healthcare Volunteer in May 2022, following intensive training by SIXKNM. I was assigned a role by SIXKNM to identify families living with mentally ill patients, detect relapse, offer medications, and refer serious patients to the project mental health officer. I have worked on this project for about nine months. Even today I still get families living with mental ill patients who are calling me to assist their mentally sick patients. I help them because I am passionate about my CHV job, and I want to help SIXKNM reach the targeted number of mentally sick patients visited and attended. One of the patients I visited, who is both HIV positive and has a mental disorder, is bedridden and was benefiting a lot from the services of CHVs. He lives with his elderly mother who is unable to go to the clinic to collect his ARVs and the mental disorder treatment. I still visit him, but it pains me that the project is coming to an end. He may go for days without both his treatment, and I fear that his condition may worsen because he has defaulted. Patients and families that I was working with are begging us to go back to work. Some of the terminally ill patients do not receive care from their families. We, as CHVs, help reduce that burden by helping them with their treatment – we bathe them and cook for them. We are willing to go back to work and help the people who are suffering. I feel that without CHVs there is no health service.’’ 

Although the funding for the direct outreach in communities may be coming to an end, SIXKNM program volunteers will continue to follow up with patients through phone calls, use social media to share messages and organize school campaigns to continue to promote awareness and encourage positive attitudes towards mental health in communities. 

Destigmatizing mental health means involving patients, their families, and the whole community. A key component of SIXKNM’s mental health program was the training they have provided to religious and traditional leaders, teachers and journalists to teach them how to challenge the stigma of mental health in their communities. Through these partnerships and their far-reaching community program, SIXKNM has been able to transform the lives of 2989 patients, including 704 people experiencing severe depression who received care from psychiatrists and were referred to hospitals for specialized treatment. 

Lucy Wanjiru, a beneficiary of the outreach program, explains how SIXKNM helped her son through his depression.

“I am a mother of three children, my husband passed on in 2017. John, my only son aged 27 years, suffered from anxiety and depression. This is a family of minimal means; I only do small farming and my two daughters are married living with their families. John lost his job after a three-year habit of taking alcohol and now he lives here with me. His condition had worsened, he spent much of his time indoors and does nothing. John could go for months without bathing or cleaning his clothes, he looked shaggy with his unattended hair and beard. I have always wanted my son to heal. I have prayed for him overtime and invited my pastor to pray for him, but he didn’t change. Then one morning, Joan, a young girl of my neighbourhood, came here and told me that there is a group called SIXKNM that was offering assistance for people like John. I came to know later that Joan was one of SIXKNM Community Health Volunteers. The treatment journey for John commenced thereafter and Joan helped me and was so supportive. She made me realize that there are many people who faced the same challenges and they succeeded, and that John’s problem can be managed. She made me feel a sense of support and understanding. She explained things to me and asked what kind of help John needed. Within a couple of weeks, John was on medications, and he has improved, he now cleans his clothes and bathes and does some outside chores. This help was such a welcome surprise and big improvement. This was so helpful to me, and my family and I hope that other mental ill patients and families suffering from mental health issues, find this organization and will reach out to them. God Bless SIXKNM!”

Ubuntu team members and Isabella in Ubuntu's food security fieldUbuntu team members and Isabella in Ubuntu's food security field

*Direction for the implementation of this project was led by KBF Canada

About the author

By Isabelle Jeanson

Communications Freelancer

A passionate humanitarian, Isabelle has worked in Canada and Europe, and in over a dozen countries around the world as a humanitarian field worker. Her professional parcours includes a background in journalism, emergency management in highly insecure contexts, crisis incident management and communications leadership roles. She has an MA in Interdisciplinary Studies focusing on peacebuilding, leadership, and communications.

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