I am an MPhil (Masters of Philosophy) in Neuroscience student at the University of Cambridge, mental health advocate, and blogger. I was born and raised in Zimbabwe. The term “mental health” was non-existent in my life until I started my tertiary education at the University of Zimbabwe.
In this article, I unpack a mental health intervention I established, anchored in young Zimbabweans’ lived experience.
I have been told that I am biased towards young people’s mental health and that is true. I am not ashamed to admit it.
I have seen young people suffering in silence because societies are not prepared to support a young person’s mental health needs. I have heard statements such as “young people do not get depressed.” Some have said, “young people are entitled.” Generations have been compared with each other with some millennials and Gen Z being seen as “too soft.”
It is disheartening when a cry for help is mistaken for attention seeking.
The year 2018 was transformative for me. I had just started my undergraduate degree, but that did not transform my life – rather the reality of mental health challenges.
Upon starting my degree, suicide cases were recorded bi-monthly. This was horrifying news because the cases were of fellow students. My first reaction was that I needed to understand suicide risk factors and potential interventions. To my surprise, that information was not readily available.
I struggled to get access to mental health statistics, and information about service providers. In searching for mental health knowledge, I realised that there was a lack of mental health awareness and limited mental health services in Zimbabwe. In my tertiary institution, there was a disparity in understanding mental health issues alongside the greater student population. Through blogging, I took on the responsibility of providing mental health education to my peers.
In my advocacy journey, I have realised that the mental health education available is not culture sensitive. This creates multiple barriers for different groups to access mental health knowledge. Most mental health research lacks cross-cultural validity because its ideologies are based on a eurocentric narrative that dominates the global mental health space. The way mental health, as a concept, is communicated reflects the mental health inequality gap within our communities.
Language is a good example that creates barriers for people to access mental health knowledge and services. If the foundation of mental health knowledge is not a reflection of its target audience, how can the knowledge be spread and attained? What has been apparent is that there is a great need for mental health professionals to immerse themselves in the target population’s culture to understand its needs and tailor services accordingly.
Mental health difficulties are a major concern for young people. Globally, one in seven 10-19-year-olds experiences a mental health challenge, contributing 13% of the global burden of disease in this age group. Today, suicide cases in Zimbabwe keep skyrocketing, with drugs and substance abuse threatening society. The Zimbabwean suicide rate for 2019 was 14.10, a 0.71% increase from 2018.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that, globally, there is a high number of 15–19-year-olds who engage in heavy episodic drinking. In Zimbabwe, the prevalence of drugs among young people is 57% and in 2019 45% of the patients admitted to mental health facilities were youth suffering from addiction.
Historically, mental health challenges have been overlooked in young people mainly because they are “young.” In African communities, one is expected to be strong and resilient. One is bound by certain duties, expectations and obligations that dictate how feelings and emotions must be expressed. A cry for help can easily be mistaken for a sense of entitlement or weakness. It is evident that youth mental health is in a crisis yet mental health education and services are still inaccessible for the majority.
Designing a mental health system for youths
How do we make mental health dialogue a norm in youth spaces across the globe? How do we shift the perception of expression from weakness to strength in youth spaces? These are questions I have been asking myself for the past six years.
Young people want to be exposed to environments that are fun, exciting, and stimulating. Providing mental health education like a university subject is likely to capture the attention of a few people. Not because young people are not prioritising mental health; but because the information is simply not designed or packaged for young people.
Although blogging provided a platform for me to raise mental health awareness, it was a barrier for me to reach disadvantaged communities. I became cognisant of the fact that some people may not have access to the internet or digital devices, therefore, I created a mental health space that could physically reach communities. In the year 2021, I decided to start a community-based organisation called Ndinewe Foundation to promote good mental health and well-being among young Zimbabweans.
Ndinewe is currently based in Harare, Zimbabwe. Long-term, I want to scale Ndinewe across the globe making it a global movement that is culture sensitive. The organisation is led by youths who are trained to facilitate mental health campaigns, workshops, and support groups that promote personal development, emotional growth, and peer support.
Guided by professional psychologists, the Ndinewe team enters predominantly youth spaces such as: high schools, art and music festivals, sports tournaments, and facilitates referrals to the psychologists that offer their services pro bono to the organisation. Ndinewe in my native language, Shona, means “I am with you,” and the organisation itself has become a safe space for young Zimbabweans to receive knowledge and support.
One of the reasons youth spaces are important locations for mental health advocacy is because young people are in their element. If a space is perceived as “cool”, one is likely to be curious about elements in the space. What is special about Ndinewe is that the content and activities are guided by a model I have coined “Mental Health in the Zimbabwean Context.” The model is concerned with defining mental health and its experiences from a Zimbabwean perspective, a perspective that reflects a Zimbabwean’s orientation to the meaning of life, the world and relationships with others and oneself.
“Thank you, Ndinewe Foundation, for helping us understand mental health issues.” (Zimbabwean Youth)
In July 2022, Ndinewe launched its first Mental Health Booklet titled "Understanding Mental Health" which seeks to educate young people about mental health, its risk factors, warning signs and coping mechanisms. The booklet has been endorsed by Allied Health Practitioners Council Zimbabwe, which has the mandate through the Health Professions Act (Chapter 27.19) to regulate allied health practitioners.
Today, Ndinewe has engaged with over 10, 000 individual accounts across LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The organisation has provided mental health support, gender-based violence sensitisation workshops and mental health education to over 200 young people across 6 communities. Through these activities young people have engaged with the local authority such as the Ministry of Youth and Police Victim Friendly Unit; creating platforms for young people to tell the government their needs. The Ndinewe team has also interacted with over 230 children through sports tournaments: raising substance abuse awareness through music, art, and poetry. The organisation’s monthly support groups have consistently had an attendance of 25 people.
As the world reshapes how people perceive mental health, it is key to have youth voices at the centre of mental health education and service development. In Zimbabwe, Ndinewe Foundation has become a movement for young people to have hope.