“I lost both parents and I have suffered from depression for a long time without realising that it was depression and an illness; but with the Nkhawa Njee radio programme, I managed to pick myself up and I am still at school. I am no longer worried and depressed”.
These are the words from one of the regular listeners to the radio programme in Malawi.
Issues of mental health are rampant, although not much prominence is given to them.
An interactive radio programme broadcast on Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) Radio Two Nkhawa Njee, Yonse Bo, is slowly reaching out to the youth in the country.
The show is part of Farm Radio Trust’s Mental Health Integrated Innovations (MHII) project, which combines the participatory radio show with the aim of increasing mental health literacy and health care support.
Farm Radio Trust’s youth engagement officer, Thembi Thadzi believes there are many young people in the country that have depression, adding that early intervention can help the youth cope with stress and depression.
The radio campaigns start with a conversation on different stress types that the youth face; from relationships to sex and drugs. A radio drama then illustrates these stresses and entertains the audience, while a participatory show engages youth and shares their point of view.
The programme targets 12 to 25-year-olds that can tune in through in-school and out-of-school listening clubs. The half-hour show includes interviews with youth and music.
On weekly basis, Thadzi says they reach out to over 2 500 young people from the youth clubs.
“We have 50 clubs; these are our primary targets, but we also reach out to other young people through our Facebook page and the radio show. Our impact districts at the moment include Lilongwe, Mchinji and Salima but we have young people from all over the country calling for assistance,” she says.
Zomba Mental Hospital public relations officer Harry Kawiya says that although no study has been done in Malawi on teenage depression, international statistics indicate that between five and eight percent of teenagers experience depression at some point in their teenage years.
“These international standards are similar to what we see in local hospitals,” says Kawiya while pointing out that there is no single cause for youth suffering depression.
“Experiencing high levels of personal stress or experiencing stress over long periods of time are strong and consistent factors causing depression. Others might be risk factors coupled with poor coping mechanisms.
“Examples of risk factors include history of depression in a family. If the teenager is female and her mother has been previously treated for depression, she is at very high risk of developing depression before she reaches 20,” he says.
Among other causes of stress, Kawiya reveals loss of a parent when young; bullying in schools; failure in school or physical illness such as HIV or Aids.
“By simply knowing that they are HIV positive, it can be cause for high level of stress in teenagers,” he says.
In terms of poor coping mechanisms, the spokesperson singles out substance abuse, although he is quick to mention that most adolescents who are misusing alcohol or drugs do not have a depression.
Others include isolation and the tendency to keep to one-self the things that one is going through.
In a nutshell, Kawiya says risk factors combined with stress and poor coping mechanisms equal mental health problems, adding that early identification and treatment make a big difference in outcomes of depression.
He advises teachers to check for patterns of declining grades, frequent lateness or absenteeism in school for the youth to determine whether they are depressed or not.
He also advises parents and guardians to take their teenagers to primary health care early screening when they start showing signs of persistent low moods or getting irritated quickly.
“Early identification will make a big difference in outcomes and reduce the risk of suicide among the youth. Let us avoid wasting time by shifting blame. Nobody is to blame.
Depression is not a sign of weakness or substance abuse; most adolescents misuse alcohol or drugs but do not have depression. Mental illness and substance use is a complex issue,” says the mental hospital’s spokesperson. n