Narrative Change Practice Story
Though it affects everyone, the subject of mental health does not receive adequate attention in the day-to-day lives of our contemporary communities. Most affected are caregivers, who are the drivers of support systems. They constantly handle and help in alleviating high levels of trauma, pain and suffering among people. In the process, they also experience similar pain, albeit silently.
It is only when we listen to their personal stories that we can understand their suffering and help society realise their suffering. Society’s perspective will change when it hears their personal stories, building a community that collectively appreciates its ecosystem.
Eliud’s story offers alternative ways of doing things with stories, thinking and dealing collectively with the crisis that the society is facing.
His story offers three major takeaways:
Collectiveness: Eliud’s piece reflects the idea that stories should bring people together to share their experiences. The story has brought together the group of caretakers in mental health sector who were courageous enough to speak about what they went through. More importantly, they had the courage to share their narratives with wider society. They also offer recommendations to those in management positions on the best approaches of handling mental health crisis.
Response to crisis: stories have been found to be the best approach of responding to crisis. The problem of mental health affects most people, and sadly, many people are reluctant to share their experiences. Eliud’s story has answers for the mental health sector. He shows that mental health problem affects anyone at a time, even those working in caretaking position to deliver support. If a psychiatrist, a psychological counsellor, a mortician and a volunteer community health worker are confident enough to share their personal experiences on mental health, it is high time for society to prioritises mental health services for caretakers.
A tool for building a strong society: Mental illness is a global problem. More than 300 million people, 4.4% of the world’s population, have been found to suffer from depression. These alarming figures reflect the wider prevalence of poor mental health not only in Kenya or East Africa but everywhere in the world. It is estimated that mental health conditions will affect a staggering one in four people at some time in their lives. Eliud’s story is a tool for building a strong society in which mental health is a priority.
Narrative workers are people who support and offer services that promote empathy and kindness. They enable societies to care for, protect and empower the mentally ill, people struggling with low self-esteem, and those in distress. Narrative workers empathise and offer support instead of condemning, yet narrative workers themselves suffer the same conditions silently in the course of their own professional work.
Society assumes that narrative workers already have strong self-coping mechanisms by virtue of being professionals and practitioners themselves. Examples of narrative workers include: psychiatrists, counsellors, morticians, police, relief workers, teachers, journalists, clergy and medical personnel among others
In Africa, mental health is a topic currently gaining ground. Research has shown that one out of four people will have mental health illness at one point in their life.
Other myths have labelled mental illness as a result of witchcraft or generational curses, which means the topic loses priority as a mainstream health challenge. Access to mental health services is also a barrier because of the high cost, making it readily unaffordable to all. There is stigma associated with counselling services too. Sadly, though, narrative workers are also human and suffer in silence because it is assumed that they are immune to mental health struggles because they are practitioners. This has resulted in a range of issues for narrative workers, including anger, low self-esteem, stress and generally negative emotions.
I set out to record the voices of narrative workers so that they may be heard and get considered for emotional support. I led a team of four (two males and two females) in interviewing some narrative workers to hear their personal stories and distribute them to wider society. We also utilised social media, tweet chats, podcasts, live Facebook discussion and a radio talk show to propagate conversations around the experiences of narrative workers and why society needs to shift its narrative on perception towards this group. The campaign lasted four weeks and an audience of at least 1.1 million listeners and users of the various media platforms were reached.
We interviewed a person supporting the rehabilitation of drug addicts who is also a caregiver to cancer patients. We also separately interviewed a psychiatrist, a psychological counsellor, a mortician and a volunteer community health worker. In total, we interviewed two females and three males. Each one of them affirmed that in their journey of giving care and support to others, they undergo pain and trauma seeing their clients suffer. However, they are positive that with initiatives such as this, society will gradually understand them more. They are hopeful that national and local governments will invest more resources in infrastructure and personnel to handle mental health sector.
Here are some of the quotes from the interviewees:
‘Empowering young girls with life skills is a real turning point for the teenage mothers. Society is embracing this intervention positively and this will make the world a better place.’ Eunice Mathai, community health volunteer.
‘Generally, the community is accepting that when they lose their loved ones, there has to be someone to take care of the corpses. Indeed, being a mortician is a job like any other just like working in an office.’ Dominic Kyalo, mortician
‘Having undergone harrowing experiences myself, I would not wish that someone else undergoes the same. It is the reason I volunteer to do this work as a caregiver. I am not motivated by money but just to see victims rehabilitated to recovery.’ Catherine Boiyane, cancer patients’ caregiver and mentor of those recovering from drug addiction
‘I take time off weekly from my busy schedule to relax and take care of my mental health because I need it in order to effectively take care of others. My family and the public are realising that as professionals we do not have solutions to all problems. We need everyone in order to succeed in our mission.’ Dr. Charles Musambai, clergy and psychological counsellor.
‘For a long time, psychiatrists were perceived as “doctors of mad people”. That has since changed and when we introduce ourselves as psychiatrists, people understand that we are mental health workers, which is a good thing. Mental health affects everybody and there can be no complete health without mental health.’ Prof. Benson Gakinya, psychiatrist and university lecturer
My team and I named the campaign ‘We too deserve empathy’ to signify and amplify the voices of narrative workers. The campaign trended under the same hashtag — #WeTooDeserveEmpathy
Here is a link to one of the products of the campaign, a 34-minute video. Please enjoy and get in touch with your empathy. https://t.co/dzW4Px8UPT