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By: Mary Mwai

The Use Of Art In Combating Mental Illness

My name is Mary Mwai and I am the founder of YEA (YOUTH ENGAGEMENT IN ART) INVITIATIVE for mental health.

Published: 28 September 2023

The motivation behind me starting this initiative was due to a personal experience. There was a time in my life when I felt alone and was battling depression silently. These were days, I woke up feeling like all I wanted to do was to go back to bed. Days filled with negative energy to an extent that everything felt dull, uninspiring and a tad annoying.

At this particular time in my life, I had little knowledge about what mental health is and as such I didn’t know how to combat it. However, I did know something was wrong with me. So I started spending time researching to tackle the lagging emotions I had so that I can return to my regular self. It was at that particular point, I learnt about what mental health is and different ways you could combat it. I knew within me that there was something I needed to do to help young people out there that are going through similar experiences as I was.

Motivated by the urge to help young people out there, I started posting about mental health on my social media platforms and the reaction turnout from the public was really inspiring. I received some personal messages on my Facebook inbox. Messages like the ones below.

“Hello, sorry for bothering you but I just wanted to let you know that I really like your posts on mental health. I am currently battling multiple mental illnesses and people have been judging me in a negative way including my family, but I am glad to know that there are people like you who understand that mental illnesses exist and are willing to speak about them openly. So, thank you so much coz your posts do motivate me to keep on fighting. May God bless you.”

“I am really grateful for that you are willing to help someone you don’t really know, so thank you so much and I’d be really glad to have someone to talk to… Someone who won’t judge me and if you have any issues as well just know I’m here for you as well.”

From these conversations, I realised that I was not alone. I realised that so many people out there, especially youth, are victims of mental health but are all suffering silently due to stigmatizations around it. As such, this encouraged me to find a way to keep helping people out there that are combating mental health and this was how I started this initiative.

Truth is, this was a really difficult time as I had this lingering fear that comes with starting something new, that comes with starting something you have little to no knowledge about.

However, I was able to keep going through the inspirations I got from Arts and Crafts. I listen to music, which is one of my hobbies and one of most inspirational forms of art. I started teaching myself how to knit which was fun regardless of the fact that I did not know how to do it right.

Slowly, through the help of art, I moved forward. I also got to opportunity to appreciate art in it’s purest form. I got to learn that art involves creating, appreciating & healing, enabling me to realise that it is a useful process to help individuals manage and cope with mental health problems, physical pain, difficult emotions, feelings & experiences. Art experiences the things that language cannot, it nurtures our feeling and imagination which is the healing element inherent in all forms of self-expression and art.

Our organization’s mission is creating awareness and facilitating mental health wellness through art, advocacy, and mentorship to youth.

Our vision is to enhance mental health of young Kenyans & community. As such, we aim to denounce the stigma and taboo around mental health illnesses.

Our objective is to create a safe environment to break the circle of silence and enable youths to seek for help. To achieve this we will engage with young Kenyans between the age of 15 and 25 years old in awareness-raising on mental health through art like spoken word, dancing, drama, knitting, and music. We believe that these different forms of arts will equip the youngsters with the necessary skills to express themselves, advocate, and flourish in society.

The KEHEBU initiative by AL for health has been extremely helpful in our journey. The project was just but a dream, but with the help of the co-creators Obra Coulibaly and Jessica Nett, AL for Health’s network coordinator Tinyiko Nyathi and her team as well as all the mentors during the program made it  a reality. The journey has not been easy as  I had to start the project from scratch. However, we have made an immense progress and have already partner with a school to implement a pilot. We have been able to transformed a simple idea into something meaningful and impactful with support from teachers and cooperation from the students. The students have created amazing artworks, knitting items, beautiful drama, dance and music compositions. They are really impressive!  I must admit that I am so proud of my students.

I have also gained a wealth of knowledge and skills from my co-creators who made the journey enjoyable. I am very grateful for the KEHEBU opportunity and have been able to continue with the program. We have been able to continue this initiative thus impacting lives of youth and raising awareness about mental health through weekly meetings and art activities that I mentioned above. When I started the initiative, students did not have any knowledge about mental health but through our hard work and dedication, they are now well equipped!

The saying that Rome was not built in a day is not just a cliche. It’s  reality in business, career development and personal development. It takes time, patience, and grit before you see things eventually working out. To grow, whether personally or in anything you are doing, you need to swallow your ego & pride. Do it yourself. These have been my major takeaway from this journey.

The goal is to continue with the advocacy and involving other students and community members in our initiative. Our target being the Adolescent and young people and to enlarge our art activities.