Mental Health on Air: How Radio is Getting Teens Talking About Mental Health in Malawi and Tanzania

Mental Health on Air: How Radio is Getting Teens Talking About Mental Health in Malawi and Tanzania

Huffington Post
Co-author: Heather Gilberds
Currently completing a PhD in journalism and communication at Carleton University, Heather was the program manager of Farm Radio International's integrated mental health project.



In much of Africa, mental health is a taboo issue that is simply not talked about -- to the detriment of many people, and youth especially. But in Malawi and Tanzania, radio is getting young people talking about mental health.


Godfrey* (not his real name) is a typical teenager in many ways -- he attends secondary school in Malawi, is looking forward to college, and loves to play soccer.

But, last year, Godfrey tried to take his own life.

His suicide attempt came after losing both his father and best friend in the same year. He felt distant and alone and isolated himself from his peers. As he fell deeper into what he now understands to be depression, he contemplated suicide frequently before eventually attempting to end his own life.

Things changed for him after he joined a new club at school. He's part of a radio listening club that tunes in together to Nkhawa Njee -- Yonse Bo (Depression Free, Life is Cool in Malawi's national language of Chichewa).

The radio program is hosted by the country's most famous hip hop DJs, who get young people talking about mental health by combining radio drama with on-air discussions, hip hop, celebrity interviews, and call-in Q&A sessions with experts. After each episode, trained teachers facilitate discussions about issues such as depression, exam stress, sexuality, and substance abuse -- and how to cope.

What Godfrey learned through Nkhawa Njee and his listening club literally saved his life.

Mental health in Africa

In much of Africa, mental health is near the bottom of global health priorities, shadowed by the threat of communicable and infectious diseases like HIV+AIDS, cholera, and tuberculosis. In Malawi, financing for mental health is around 1% of the country's total annual health budget.

The limited human and financial resources available are mostly used to treat severe illnesses like psychosis, epilepsy, and schizophrenia -- treatment which often consists of segregating severely mentally ill patients from the rest of society by committing them to institutions. There are few health providers that are adequately trained to treat mental health disorders, and even fewer psychologists and psychiatrists.

Complicating the situation even further, high stigma and low levels of awareness about common mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder mean that people rarely seek help despite the fact that depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide.

Illnesses like depression are largely considered the result of laziness, lack of motivation, or, in severe cases, spiritual possession and bewitchment. The fact that suicide is illegal in Malawi and Tanzania, along with many other African countries, also contributes to people most in need of help shying away from it and suffering in silence. A lack of demand for mental health services does little to encourage government spending for better care.

Sadly, the majority of people suffering from mental health problems simply do not seek out or receive treatment.

Youth, a critical window

The age of onset for most mental health disorders is prior to 25 years of age, making adolescence a critical window to promote mental health and well-being and to address mental health problems. If left untreated, mental health disorders can cause emotional, behavioural, and health-related difficulties for many years, and can prevent a young person from thriving and fully embracing life.

The first step to appropriate care is to raise awareness about mental health and mental illness so that young people can learn to identify the signs and symptoms and seek care early on. And the earlier someone receives treatment, the better the outcomes.

Beyond farm radio

At Farm Radio, we've been using radio to serve farmers for almost four decades. Helping African radio stations develop informative and entertaining farmer programs is the core of our work. But, knowing the power of radio, especially when combined with newer communications technologies, we've recently started leveraging our expertise in participatory, audience-centred radio to new areas, including mental health.

We produced Nkhawa Njee in partnership with Dr. Stan Kutcher, director of Teen Mental Health and our strategic partner Farm Radio Trust in Malawi, with the support of Grand Challenges Canada.

A year after Nkhawa Njee was on the air in Malawi, we created a similar program in Tanzania called Positive Mood. This Degrassi Junior High-style serialized soap opera follows Bahati, a teenage girl who becomes pregnant and attempts suicide.

For teenagers like Godfrey, this is the first time they have been able to talk about highly taboo mental health subjects, and the result is infectious. Both Nkhawa Njee and Positive Mood are among the most popular youth radio shows on the national airwaves in Malawi and Tanzania.

Radio by youth, for youth

In collaboration with our partners, we conducted community research to understand young people's knowledge, thoughts, and feelings when it comes to mental health. Working closely with local radio partners, the team used this research to develop topics and themes for the weekly radio programs.

The radio programs explore the issues that young people told us are important to them: HIV+AIDS, teenage pregnancy, employment, and grades -- all with an undercurrent of mental health promotion and awareness.

Meanwhile, Dr. Kutcher worked with local health professionals to deliver a mental health training program for hundreds of teachers and health care providers in both countries so that youth with depression can get support in school and better care at health clinics. This provides youth with a unique, integrated approach combining education and awareness raising through radio, training for teachers, support for school mental health clubs, and health care providers skilled in diagnosis and basic care.

The results have been remarkable, with significant gains in mental health knowledge, help-seeking behaviour, and effective care for young people.What we're seeing in Malawi and Tanzania demonstrates how powerful radio can be to get people talking about even taboo topics.

Let's keep the conversation going.

Farm Radio International works with more than 600 radio partners across 39 African countries, reaching tens of millions of small-scale farmers and their families. Learn more about its life-changing work at www.farmradio.org.

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