Mental health in Kenya has been neglected. It exists but when the topic arises we all seem to wear blinkers. Cultural influences pervade mental health issues with most people shying away and choosing not to comment or seek mental health, this is due to the fact that mental health is only associated with mental disorders or weakness. But lately the genie is finding its way out of the bottle- more people are engaging in the conversation and art is involved in its own special way.
Phyllis Wanja- the founder of Afyakili and a Diana award holder believes that by expressing oneself artistically people can resolve issues as well as develop and manage their feelings, reduce stress and improve self-esteem. We interacted with her to get an insight on art therapy and mental health.
Tell us about Afyakili and what it does.
Afyakili is a non- profit organization that was started in 2017, with the aim of using Art for Mental Hygiene. ‘Afyakili’ is a Swahili word created by combining two words, ‘Health’ and ‘Mental’, an idea brought to life by Brent Kokonya, one of Afyakili’s team members. Afyakili uses Art to create awareness and educate people on the importance of having a healthy mind. It also uses Art Therapy, an expressive therapy that involves the creative process of making art to improve a person’s physical, mental and emotional well-being.
We have mental health professionals who educate members on topics like ‘depression.’
What was your drive to use art therapy to address mental health?
Having been an artist since 2004, I have personally experienced the great benefits of art, in regards to having the freedom of expression. Art is a tool that helps individuals manage their inner self in a way that may provide the individual with a deeper understanding of self . This, in turn, leads to personal development, build on life skills and cognitive function.
What is your biggest concern about our ability as a country to address mental health?
As a country, we are moving forward positively in addressing this matter. However, a lot is yet to be done. In order to address the awareness gap, mental health education should be embraced in our curriculum from the basic level of education. Young children should be educated from a tender age, on the importance of having self-love and reaching out in times of need. They should be taught how to take care of their minds.
How have you managed to embed art within your organization to solve some mental health problems?
Afyakili has reached out to Artists to generate Art pieces that reach to the masses, by conveying key messages that touch on mental health, as a way of creating and spreading awareness among the youth. These Art pieces become an educative tool, where each of them addresses a mental issue. Through this, the talk on mental health has been made easier. Art images have enabled individuals to be open about mental health. Art softens the hearts of people and changes peoples’ minds. It is now easier to speak about issues like suicide, thanks to Art. Fear is no more while engaging the society with Art pieces.
Share highlights of projects that Afyakili has engaged in and the outcome.
Afyakili has been involved in several projects. The first being calling out for Artist to create Art pieces that are educative for mental hygiene as a form of Art Therapy. A number of Artists reached out and are still working with us voluntarily for the course.
Secondly, Afyakili offers a platform where mental health professionals engage with the youths in events and online platforms. We also reach out to individuals who need assistance and we link them up with the professionals who assist them voluntarily.
Earlier this year we started daily posts on our WhatsApp status to further online discussions.
How can you rate the reception of your organization’s involvement in mental health hygiene?
At first, it was a bit difficult addressing issues like depression and suicide to the public. This is because of the stigma that surrounds mental health. But this has changed gradually. Individuals are now positively taking up the role of being mental hygiene ambassadors. In fact, there is a lot of support from people, especially from medics and the society in general.
Who supports the projects in your organization?
Afyakili works with individuals who are willing to offer their services voluntarily. However, in events such as counselling sessions, we charge a minimal amount. In 2017, we got support from Safaricom, Blaze platform, that enabled us buy the necessary resources that were needed to start off this organization. We also use our personal savings and support from our families.
What are some of the challenges that you have faced as an organization towards its vision?
Stigma is the first challenge that we face. Mental Health talks were not embraced before by society due to fear. Secondly, the lack of enough resources. For instance, it’s challenging to find professionals who are willing to offer free services. Lack of enough Art materials has also been challenging, keeping in mind that Art materials are quite expensive and sometimes out of stock in the market.
What piece of advice would you offer to others seeking to venture into art with a purpose?
First, have a deep understanding of what you want and why, and identify the gap in the market or society. Understand your project deeply and have a concrete vision for the same. Ensure that you have the right team members who share the same vision with you. Ensure that the Art in use, project, is transforming lives, not just in the society, but also in your life as an individual. Align your vision with the Sustainable Development Goals, to create an impact in society. Be informed, focused, consistent, patient and passionate. Trust the process and above all, put God first.