Together with fellow clinical psychology students and other mental health advocates, Kwizera Rulinda has been doing community outreach on mental health awareness, analysing issues and challenges that are still prevailing in communities. What his team came across is that myths, misunderstandings and stigma still thrive in people’s mind-sets and beliefs. They also discovered that society knows little or possesses an inverse perception about mental health; with some perceiving it as ‘ancestral spirits,’ myths or even worse, an in-born abnormality. Rulinda founded the initiative to address prevailing challenges around mental health. / Photos: Courtesy With this finding, he decided to lead an umbrella of students to start addressing mental health in several communities. Through his organisation, Mental Health Journal Rwanda, he offers self-help psychology. He also orients mental health research and mental advocacy through community outreach, article writing and publishing around mental health awareness. So far, there were several initiatives that focused on mental health support and awareness, but Rulinda figured the need for more research and writing, reasoning that this is the best way of addressing an issue from the source. “This is what triggered the start of Mental Health Journal Rwanda, with intent of prioritising evidence-based practises in mental health awareness and support, with hope that it will help in breaking the stigma,” he says. Mental illness was increasing across the world even before the pandemic, Rulinda says. “Many people were less or not informed about the issue merely due to factors such as limited awareness, limited information and related research available, beliefs, myths and the stigma around it.” Mental health disorders can affect anyone at any time in their lives; millions of people of all ages suffer from depression, which is a major cause of disability and a leading contributor to the overall burden of disease. When it remains untreated or undetected, it can lead to suicide. According to the World Health Organisation, depression is one of the leading causes of disability. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-29-year-olds. People with severe mental health conditions die prematurely—as much as two decades early— due to preventable physical conditions. His services involve community outreach for mental health support and awareness. Rulinda says this data sharpened and triggered them to develop home-based solutions in order to support large communities. “The issue is still under-tackled, under-funded hence, it is negatively impacting our society on a large scale, starting from vulnerable people with disabilities and poor communities,” Rulinda says. What needs to be done? “We don’t have enough educational health articles, not so many resources for the community and little space to publish related articles,” Rulinda discerns. “This may be from insufficient skills in conducting research and article writing among mental health care providers, lack of interest in writing, or an absence of platforms to publish their written research and articles. This may all be an issue,” he says. The activist thinks interventions such as mental health screening should be availed like the way people are screened for other diseases, such as cancer, to detect early incipient, and that this should be done starting from young children to adults. “The government, NGOs and health supporting institutions need to invest more in mental health. Decentralising mental health services in remote areas can also make them accessible, but also, as every health centre should have more than one mental health practitioner to tackle the insufficiency medical personnel and promotion of quality service,” Rulinda says. He also believes there should be promotion of mental health programmes among youth, such as mental health clubs in schools and recruiting psychologists or other behaviourist in support of wellbeing at schools, and in any other places the youth tend to be. The workplace needs to be dealt with too; since it is known to bring stressful and overwhelming situations, having a professional to help with coping can make a difference. Milestones for the initiative Since the inception of his organisation in July 2019, Mental Health Journal Rwanda has managed to accomplish different activities such as weekly research education sessions; these involve exploring and discussing research related topics, they have done community outreach for mental health support and awareness in vulnerable communities i.e. people with disabilities and poor families that need psycho-social support mainly. In August this year, they launched the joint research and article writing training, a three-month project where over 60 students were selected for the 1st cohort where they gained relevant skills in article writing, research, and article publication around mental health promotion. Its objective was to encourage healthcare providers to do research and write articles to share with the community in a language they understand, to challenge current approaches. In partnership with youth/student-led associations, University of Rwanda/Center for Mental Health, UNICEF and Rwanda Biomedical Centre/Mental Health Division, the initiative organised several campaigns and outreaches themed #YouthMentalHealthCampaign in celebration of this year’s World Mental Health Day. As a way of continuing to sharpen and equip students with research and writing skills, Rulinda and his team plan to host a 2nd cohort to a seminar of research and writing, where participants will be well-equipped to contribute to mental health education in the community through well-written articles either in Kinyarwanda, English and French. “We are eager and enthusiastic to promote early career research as milestone,” Rulinda says.