Sana founder on the need for mental health conversations

Sana Laure Iyaga, founder of Sana, an initiative which aims at breaking the stigma around mental health issues. Nadege Imbabazi

Laure Iyaga is the founder of Sana that started in January this year. The initiative aims at breaking the stigma around mental health issues, raise awareness around emotional wellbeing but also reframe how Rwandans view therapy.

So far, they have organised two discussions and a collaboration with Sous Les Masque, another group of psychologists who are interested in research in May, June and July respectively.


This month they will have another one on Friday August31 at the Kigali Public Library under the topic‘Children therapy’.


She spoke to Sharon Kantengwa on the need for mental health attention and her aspirations for the initiative.


What inspired this initiative?

It’s called a Sana Initiative so the talks are part of the many initiatives of Sana. It comes from the verb Sana which means to bend, build, to renew, to restore- that’s in Kinyarwanda but it also means sane in Latin. The word Sana in Portuguese means health, so it has similar meanings in different languages.

We have four pillars. The first pillar is psycho education where we create conversations that talk about mental health, break that stigma and raise awareness about mental health.

The other pillar is doing community work, with community health workers and social workers and training them more on how to sojourn with people that they are taking care of. We do that also in schools where we believe that it starts early for one to understand what psychology all its components are about.

The third pillar is research based because we cannot talk about mental health without facts and figures. We need to know what the rate of depression, trauma and different disorders is.

The fourth is therapy. Now that you have heard through conversations what it’s all about and figures show us that there is need for this, then what? There is need for therapy, and also guide people into therapy. We are opening our clinic in December where we will have a clinical team of psychologists, psychiatrists and counsellors and then we will be able to provide therapy sessions on a daily basis.

What drew you to mental health?

I am a trained counsellor but I have a background in project management. What drew me to opening Sana was pain. We see pain all around and as a trained counselor there are things that I notice more.

Also, Rwanda is a country that has been in existence for thousands of years but has only been living for 24 years. When you go back in history the genocide against the Tutsi was the drop that made the vase overflow, it started a long time ago.

There is also something that is called transgenerational disorder where people who were not born even then face the traumatic part of it.

So for a country that has been living for 24 years, we don’t have enough facilities and safe spaces for that. That’s why we decided to start with conversations and make it available and understandable for people. For example we have only ten psychiatrists in the country so that shows that even in the field we still lack people who can do this.

Young people today are open to conversations and willing to welcome ideas. Is this an advantage in understanding mental health for young people?

Yeah, definitely. People have been more exposed to different things. People are willing to learn more, especially here in the urban area. We have done two events and the first event we had more than 100 people and in the second, we had more than 200 people because they just want to come and learn.

People have been longing to have a space to have these conversations and the approach is to bring it to them and the good thing is that they are willing to know more. We are not afraid that it’s going to work out and it is already working out.

Was the turn up something that you expected?

To be honest, no. The first event we prepared about 70 chairs but it was fully packed. We had more than 100 people at the event. We didn’t even know that the 70 chairs would be full, we were just testing it. The second one, we took it to a bigger venue and it was full. So I did not expect the big numbers but I knew that something has to be done. For me, even though one person came or one person got all that they needed, that’s a mission accomplished for me.

What are your long term goals for Sana?

I always tell people that the vision for Sana is to do all the work for people that are around today to prepare for the next generation. We are going to help people understand what therapy, mental health and psychology is, unlearn old habits and learn new habits of being healthier and with that we are going to have kids in an environment that is safe and healthier more than ever. So Sana is here to stay.

Also, to help the community, we have come through a lot and our parents have gone through a lot more and what’s scary is that sometimes people suffer the pain and take their lives because they can’t stand that pain any longer. We want a healthy Rwanda and not just a country that growing economically, socially or infrastructural wise. We want a country that is safe and sound.

What are your tips on dealing with mental illness and how can people help their loved ones with mental illness?

People self-diagnose a lot especially with search engines like google where people can just go and take tests. Also, the stigma that comes with mental health and mental illnesses, people self stigmatise and they will cope with drugs, alcohol, entertainment in different ways and do things that are not healthy as a way to self-medicate. As it bottles up tips are, don’t do that, simply.

If you think there’s something talk to someone, a specialist because when you self-diagnose, self- stigmatise, or self-medicate, you do more damage to your mental health. It’s okay not to be okay but it’s not okay to remain that way, I say that every day. Mental health matters more than physical health.

Sojourning others is also not fixing. Just be present for your loved ones because all they need is someone to be there for them. Just listen to what they are saying and listen with the third ear because maybe what they are educating is that they have suicidal thoughts.

Do not judge. We are so self-righteous to an extent where we are always looking for the wrong in the other person. Lastly, don’t fix. Listen but don’t be quick to give advice because they have heard it all before.


Help them seek the right guidance and you do not want to be the one seek help at the end of the finish line. Be mindful of your mental health.

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