• Wairimu Ndung'u

"We Want Safe Spaces to Talk" USIU-Africa Students Cry Out

Updated: Aug 14

“I think your topic is so important because we need more regular conversations on mental health struggles. In fact, I’m a suicide survivor…”

It was two months ago when each student pitched their incredible project proposals to our supervisor.

After presenting what I deemed a sufficient argument for my proposal it was this student’s response, I believe, that sold it. Or at the very least bolstered my own determination to undertake this study.

Which study you may ask?

Well, “The ‘Spiral of Silence’ on Mental Health Communication among Students in USIU-Africa”. USIU-A being the United States International University — Africa.

You’re thinking, “Great. But what does that even mean?”

Well, the ‘spiral of silence’ is a communication theory coined by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. She proposes that people fear isolation so they tend not to share their views upon realising they hold the minority opinion.

How does this apply to USIU-Africa students?

Well, in a report recently published by the Taskforce on Mental Health in Kenya, the task force urged the government to declare mental health a national emergency in Kenya.

This same report revealed that the majority of citizens still have negative narratives around mental health yet one in every 10 people are living with a mental illness.

When you narrow this down to university students, over 40% of students exhibit depressive symptoms and in one study 43% of students felt a need to seek help for their symptoms.

This is where the act of speaking up becomes crucial.

Why? Because mental health practitioners rely on a patients’ verbalised thoughts alongside other behavioural observations to make diagnoses and prescribe treatment.

However, according to Noelle-Neumann, one’s willingness to speak up on a particular topic is often affected by:

  • One: the opinion expressed as dominant by the media

  • Two: interpersonal support for a deviant opinion

Consequently, if one realises there’s little support for their deviant opinion, they either don’t openly express their opinion and/or switch from the deviant to dominant opinion.

Thus, my study investigated how the ‘spiral of silence’ determines students’ willingness to speak up about their mental health struggles and to engage in conversations on the same.

Now that you understand the theory here are the five research questions I drew from the theoretical framework:

  • RQ1a: Do USIU-A students think sharing their mental health struggles is shameful?

  • RQ1b: Are USIU-A students willing to speak up about their mental health struggles?

  • RQ1c: To what extent do USIU-A students think other people agree with their opinion that speaking up about their mental health struggles is/is not shameful?

  • RQ2: How much are USIU-A students willing to speak up in different school settings?

  • RQ3: How can the university (USIU-A) make it easier for students to speak up about their mental health struggles?

The infographic below highlights my findings:

From the findings above, I drew three important inferences.

More staff involvement can make a huge difference

85% of students who don’t think it’s shameful to speak up about their mental health struggles believe staff members like lecturers also hold the same opinion.

Also, 61.1% of students are willing to join a conversation on mental health struggles during a lesson where a lecturer is often present.

This suggests that training lecturers on how to facilitate conversations on mental health struggles may help students open up and get support before they access counselling services.

Better yet, creating an elaborate policy that details the procedure for students to share their struggles and provides the next steps for lecturers (like coursework adjustments/deadline extensions) may be beneficial.

The policy may also provide more details on how other relevant departments can collaborate to support the student’s wellness during this time.

Positive media framing increases confidence in the deviant opinion

Research shows that the coverage of mental health in traditional media in Kenya is sensationalised associating sufferers with violence.

This may explain what appears to be the current dominant opinion in Kenya — that speaking up about your mental health struggles is not only stigma-inducing but could also result in infringement upon your human rights.

On the other hand, one study on mental health framing on social media revealed that unlike traditional media the online environment leans towards more mental health awareness.

In fact, stigma is framed in a highly emotional way and uses significantly less vilifying vocabulary.

Given that 71.1% of USIU-A students get their information from social media it may explain why they hold a more positive opinion on mental health communication.

Additionally, if students are having positive conversations on mental health struggles among themselves this may be solidifying the second part of the theory; interpersonal support for a deviant opinion.

Thus, up to 70% of students are willing to speak up.

More student support and more awareness campaigns

Numerous students suggested that the school creates support groups where they could vulnerably share among people who may resonate with them.

And since we’re still living in a pandemic, internet support groups (ISPs) may provide safer avenues to connect.

A report assessing the effectiveness of virtual care found that digital interventions that include peer-to-peer networks may successfully reduce symptoms and increase knowledge — especially when these networks are moderated by clinicians.

Aside from support groups students called for more mental health literacy and awareness campaigns to normalise conversations around mental health struggles in school.

Essentially, the dream is that conversations around and interventions for mental health struggles become as accepted as sexual health and HIV conversations in USIU-Africa.

The latter being a result of regular advocacy including:

  • Provision of resources like condom dispensers

  • Sexual health literacy sessions like how to use a condom

  • Regular HIV testing weeks

Final thoughts

a black girl smiling dressed in a white top seated on a bench with a back drop of green leaves facing the right
Photo by @andrewkendungu on Instagram

I remember my very first week as a freshman in USIU-Africa.

One morning, this vibrant lady happily informed us that there would be a session led by the counselling department — a lady I later came to learn is the principal counsellor, Lucy W. Kung’u.

I remember right before this session I had just resigned from a lovely job. A job I could no longer manage as my mental health was on a downward spiral. So it was such a pleasant surprise to later find out that counselling services were free for all students.

It was an even better surprise when another counsellor used a dildo to teach us how to use a condom. She would later make an appearance in one of my first classes that semester at the request of my lecturer.

For me, all of this open, reassuring and empowering conversation initiated by staff members made me feel safe enough to consider accessing mental health services.

Although it took me a couple of weeks to muster up the courage to attend therapy — after booking sessions and failing to show up — it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Today I’m a happier senior preparing to graduate in two months.

Without the psychotherapy service, I wouldn’t have begun healing from deep traumas and acquiring coping tools that freed me to enjoy my university life.

Remember my classmate’s huge revelation about being a suicide survivor? Well, their story doesn’t end there.

“…I’m a suicide survivor AND I share this to raise more awareness on the presence of mental health struggles and the opportunities to work through them — like I did.”

This. This may be a singular representation of a generation of university students who are hungry for more honest conversations and are already taking active roles in effecting this change.

What do you think about all of this? What’s your story?

Download the full report here

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