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Imagine a world where every young person, no matter their background, has access to the support they need for their mental and emotional wellbeing. This would be a world where meaningful assistance is accessible to all, especially those who today often go unnoticed or face challenging circumstances.

Growing up in Huruma, an informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya, I experienced firsthand the struggles of marginalized communities. In such places, young individuals often slip through the cracks of inadequate mental health and social systems. My own turbulent childhood was marked by violence, parental alcoholism, the loss of my mother, neglect, and the threat of assault. These traumas led me to miss out on much of my adolescence due to severe depression. I attempted suicide at 16, feeling robbed of a crucial life stage that could have been salvaged.

This narrative isn’t unique—it resonates across communities like Huruma. Picture a curious young person living in underserved communities like Huruma and experiencing mental health challenges- their potential stifled by the limitations of existing mental health approaches. How can we change this story for these youth?

The issue is stark: even with abundant resources, the current mental health framework leaves these young people with insufficient support. Kenya’s population is mostly young, with almost three-quarters under 30. Around 46% of urban dwellers live in informal settlements, a number even higher in Nairobi, where over 60% reside informally on just 6% of the city’s land. Congested living conditions and associated challenges create complex socio-cultural and economic environments. Those experiencing forced displacement, migration, unstable families, violence, and mental health problems face even greater hardships. Poverty and gender inequalities compound these issues, impacting adolescent health and wellbeing.

The existing mental health systems’ challenges are multi-faceted. Often focused narrowly on treating symptoms rather than causes, these clinical approaches fall short in addressing the broader contexts of marginalized youth. Solutions offered are often inaccessible, failing to resonate with these individuals.

A Reimagined Support System

However, within such communities, there is more than adversity—there is resilience. I found solace in my early adulthood through Nzumari Africa, a youth-led community center that became my sanctuary. Partnering with citiesRISE, a global platform reimagining mental health care, this space transformed into a “gathering space” for local youth. Here, young individuals express themselves through art, guided by mental health professionals, fostering emotional resilience and life skills.

This transformation has broader effects. In this reimagined mental health support landscape, these gathering spaces evolve into havens of belonging. As young people participate, they initiate projects that not only clean up their environment but also instill responsibility. The community center becomes an innovation hub, exchanging ideas and building skills.

Imagine a world where every young person, irrespective of their upbringing, accesses evidence-based support where they already spend time. These spaces shift from access points to nurturing environments where purpose and contribution flourish. Change ripples through communities, one person and one relationship at a time.

Creating Change Together

To bring this vision to life, we must acknowledge that the transformation begins with us. It starts with community organizations already entrenched in meaningful work with young people. These organizations can be supported to mainstream a mental health lens, infusing their efforts with a deeper understanding of the psychological well-being of those they serve.

Moreover, there’s a pressing need to develop new spaces where none currently exist. These spaces can serve as entry points, allowing young individuals to access the support they require without barriers. Imagine a community center within Huruma where a young person, along with her peers, can engage in activities that empower them mentally, emotionally, and socially.

Transitioning from the clinic-centric approach to one grounded in community mental health professionals is essential. These professionals can bridge the gap between clinical expertise and community dynamics. By embedding themselves within the community, they gain a comprehensive understanding of its unique challenges, facilitating tailored and impactful interventions.

However, such a paradigm shift requires systemic change on a larger scale. The very structures that currently hinder young people from receiving holistic mental health support must be dismantled. This necessitates policy changes, increased investment, and a concerted effort to reshape perceptions around mental health.

Reimagining Mental Health, Today

Reimagining mental health for marginalized youth isn’t a distant dream; it’s a call to action. It urges us to challenge existing systems, advocate for community-based initiatives, support organizations uplifting youth, and champion policy changes prioritizing mental health in marginalized communities. Together, we can transform spaces like Huruma into thriving ecosystems of growth and resilience.

Be part of this movement. Illuminate the path to change through collective effort and commitment. By embracing this vision, we transcend clinical limitations and band-aid solutions, creating spaces where every young person can thrive, contribute, and shape a brighter future—one community, one relationship at a time.

The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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