Chasing life: Tackling depression and mental health in campus

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What you need to know:

  • The main barrier was communicating with my parents and people from my church.
  • Sometimes my church community would see my struggles as a sign of bad luck or a curse, witchcraft or generational curses that are passed down, or that my ancestors did something wrong. 
  • Many young people don’t speak or express what they’re feeling.
  • They think they’re strong or that they don’t have supportive people around them, so they keep quiet.

Early this month, Kenyans woke up to heartbreaking news that a final-year student from Kenyatta University had committed suicide by suffocating himself with carbon monoxide from a jiko in his hostel room. The father of one left behind a letter addressed to his mother, siblings and girlfriend, and shared a picture of himself crying before the act. He revealed that he had been facing challenges in his private life, and said he was “not willing to continue living this miserable life.”

This was just one among many cases of suicide in Kenyan colleges and universities. Many young adults find themselves struggling with feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and loneliness that affect their academic performance and general well-being. They also silently battle mental health problems such as depression due to the stressful and highly competitive academic environment, the social pressures of growing up, and the impact of technology and social media. This highlights the need for more awareness and support for students who are facing different life challenges.

Emmanuel Musungu, 22, is a student of Biochemical engineering at University of Nairobi.
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Emmanuel Musungu, 22
University of Nairobi

I have experienced mental breakdowns and depression many times. The worst was after high school when I felt depressed for six months. All you feel is pain and tears. It’s just feedback from your body and it is all negative. Isolation and staying silent is what I did. I also avoided social media. I cut off some friends and focused on my own thoughts. I don’t want to call it laziness, but I slept a lot.

I had a very bad experience in high school where I was bullied a lot because I looked a little feminine. I suffered in the hands of some rude, abusive rugby players. That hurt me deeply. I graduated in November 2019 and fell into depression for six months. All I wanted to do was to die. I had so many suicidal thoughts. I had headaches and went to the hospital often. My brother was very supportive and helped me rediscover my energy. After six months, I recovered and gained strength. I left the toxic community through the support of my parents and family. I went to university, which was not easy, but it was better because we mostly studied online since it was during Covid so I interacted fewer people.

I did not ask for help at first because many don’t understand mental health issues. But when I went to campus, I met friends who had similar experiences. They asked me tough questions and showed me love. That helped a lot.

I think there were many barriers to getting help. Our parents grew up in a different time and culture. They did not recognise or acknowledge depression. I could not approach them. They would dismiss it as a minor thing. They would say it was because of what I watched or that I would be fine soon. Or they would tell me to work harder and be more disciplined. They also expected boys to be strong and not depressed. They forgot we are all human.

The main barrier was communicating with my parents and people from my church. Sometimes my church community would see my struggles as a sign of bad luck or a curse, witchcraft or generational curses that are passed down, or that my ancestors did something wrong. 

Many young people don’t speak or express what they’re feeling. They think they’re strong or that they don’t have supportive people around them, so they keep quiet. They also think that the society won’t understand what they’re feeling. It explains why so many university students kill themselves.

Charity Akoth, 25, is a graduate of Human Resources from Kenyatta University.
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Charity Akoth, 25

Mental health is a state of mind that affects how we feel, think, and speak. We can control it before it gets worse and requires treatment. Depression is a condition that can cause mental health problems. Many people confuse depression and many mental disorders, but poor mental health is a more severe stage of depression.

To ease depression, it is very important to control your mind, although it depends on the person in question. For me, talking about it helped me a lot. I used to keep my struggles to myself and it just got worse. When I spoke up, I learned how to deal and cope with it. Whenever something triggered my depression, I tried to ignore it or think of something else. You can control your mind. Getting a hobby also helps you stay busy so that you don’t entertain triggering thoughts.

I have improved a lot with therapy and counselling, but I still have flashbacks and triggers that sometimes affect me. However, the depression doesn’t put me down anymore. I have been a victim for over a year. I had two phases of depression: Once when I was dealing with grief and loneliness, and another period when I experienced gender-based violence. The two episodes affected me differently. Talking about it, being around people, and staying busy helped me a lot.

It took me a long time to trust anyone after my brother died. He was my confidant and friend. I felt like no one else could understand me or help me with my emotions. I isolated myself and hated everyone. I wanted to talk to someone, but I didn’t know who. I thought of talking to a stranger online, or my pastor, or a therapist. I finally contacted a therapist who knew my family, but I asked her not to tell anyone. I needed someone to listen and not judge.

I don’t know how my generation handles such issues. Maybe it’s because of how we were raised, or how our parents were raised, but our generation has normalised depression and confused it with sadness. We say we are depressed even by little things, and we train our minds to believe that. We become antisocial and close ourselves up, which creates more problems.

We should take depression seriously and not talk about it as if it’s normal. We should also find someone who can listen to us without judging us, which is rare. Our generation is competitive and judgmental. We want to be seen as winners, and we laugh at other people’s struggles. We think our friends can help us, but they can’t. Sometimes talking to a stranger is better.

We need more mental health awareness, especially from our parents. They should give us space and support, not judge us based on our generation. They should be there for us, because they are our parents. Many youth commit suicide because they feel hopeless and stuck. But I think speaking up is the best solution. If you speak up, you can find someone to help you cope. When you are depressed and isolated, you feel alone and unable to move on. You lack motivation and support. But if you have a safe space to talk, you can get encouragement, even if it’s not much. You can find someone who cares for you and is always there for you.

James Ouma, 24, is an intern at the Nation Media Plant based on Mombasa Road.
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James Ouma, 24
Intern at Nation Media Group

Depression manifests as a mental health condition that diminishes an individual's interest and motivation in various activities. It can arise from a combination of triggers including stressful circumstances, family background, and other underlying factors that result in feelings of sadness and despair. While I have not encountered depression personally, I observed its impact on one of my close friends.

My friend grappled with heightened stress stemming from relationship issues and academic burdens. He was struggling academically, and he began thinking of how to boost his performance. He confided in me that he was in a toxic relationship. He was so confused about how to navigate these challenges.

Once, he told me that he had engaged in unprotected sex with his partner and was worried that he may have contracted some infections. He wondered whether to get tested or get on with life as if nothing had happened, and this brought about feelings of depression.

To cope with the difficult situation, he suddenly began drinking and engaging in strange behaviours such as excessive use of social media.

About one month later, he decided to get tested for HIV/Aids, and the results were negative. He felt a great sense of relief and he began to open up more about his challenges.

One of the obstacles that keeps individuals from seeking assistance for mental health concerns is stigma and fear of discrimination. Many people keep quiet because they fear they will be judged unfairly or become subjects of gossip. Many young people are silently battling depression and urgently require support and intervention.

Deborah Kobi, 22, is a student of Biochemistry at Machakos University.
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Deborah Kobi, 22
Machakos University

I had a close friend who suffered from depression after losing her mother. She had grown up without a father, too. Her social life deteriorated so much that she totally isolated herself. We used to have a lot of things in common but after the tragedy, our friendship faded. Her mental breakdown manifested in her difficulty to focus and make decisions on her own, as well as her changed sleep patterns. She often stayed up late, just staring at the walls. She withdrew from social activities and lost interest in things she used to enjoy.

She first confided in me and I listened to her without judgement. Then, she vowed to focus on her well-being and avoid stress. Later on, she sought professional help from a psychologist, who offered her valuable guidance and treatment options. She also went for therapy sessions to help her cope with her mum’s demise.

Lack of social support can lead to depression. Someone just feels isolated or that they don’t have a strong support system, which contributes to feelings of loneliness. Past traumatic life events and experiences, for example accidents or violence, especially domestic violence, usually increase the risk of depression.

In addition, most campus students face financial difficulties or instability which contributes to depressive symptoms such as disrupted sleeping habits, low self-esteem, loss of weight and loss of appetite. Another cause of depression is unrealistic expectations especially when someone puts excessive pressure on themselves to meet unrealistic expectations or achievements. If they fail to meet their lofty goals, they may feel inadequate. This is very common on campus.

Social media influence can also lead to depression. Frequent exposure to some images and videos on social media, where most young people spend their time, can lead to feelings of inadequacy or even low self-esteem especially if one starts comparing themselves to others.

To curb the rising cases of suicide due to depression, we should create awareness among the youth so that they can know the effects of depression and how they can overcome it.

Older folk should also strive to have open conversations with the youth starting at the family level. The youth should also engage in healthy, meaningful activities that will help keep negative thoughts at bay.