The PR professional teaching children to cope with stress

It takes a bold step for a stranger to knock at a random door and ask to educate the family about a topic as delicate as mental health.

On this, Ruth Nyangasi sought and won the trust of her community in Mau-Narok in executing the topic. It was during the Covid-19-occasioned closure of schools when the national burden of depression had scaled up due to the pandemic.

As a matter of urgency, Nyangasi marshalled a team of volunteers and went from one home to another, occasionally partnering with local churches in the bid to promote mental wellness.

The bold decision had arisen from a journey of self-discovery, which Nyangasi thought had arrived a bit late in life; the feeling that she would have handled life pressures differently, had she the knowledge of mindfulness from a tender age.

The passion dates back to 2016, when Nyangasi left her parents’ home in Mau- Narok to pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree in public relations at a local university in Nairobi. This was the first time she’d be away from home for a long period.

“I encountered a number of life-changing threats and stressors. Looking back, being on campus and away from my family was all about facing life on my own,” Nyangasei offers.

“I started learning about myself further through my experiences with people around me; how other people think, feel and behave towards us and how that shapes the way we think and feel about other people.”

Then there was the issue of her mother being diabetic, which taught her the link between diabetes and mental health.

At the university, Nyangasi, whose name means “connector of clans” in her dialect, met individuals from different backgrounds with whom she exchanged ideas, concepts, and perspectives. Through these interactions, she realised that she had a lot to work on regarding her mental health.

Discovering Mindfulness

“I started to observe my thoughts and emotional reactions and discovered that I had haboured traumas from my past relationships. I had a pattern of choosing pleasure and excitement over stability. As such, I’d let go of stable partners and friendships for immediate benefits,” she reveals.

This was not something new. Growing up in Mau-Narok, she encountered stories about childhood traumas, sexual harassment, infidelity, and neglect of children.

“Our region is known for agricultural produce of cabbages, potatoes, and peas. During the planting season, I would have the opportunity to interact with adults or overhear their conversations about issues they were dealing with and how that was affecting their children,” Nyangasi says.

“So when I started dealing with my own stressors, I would think a lot about my childhood. I had such a mindful and good upbringing but still, I was prey to mental distress,” she said of the experience that spurred her into founding Nyangasi mental health awareness programme in 2017.

Children’s wellness

The question of mental health has traditionally been sensitive, and her decision to prioritise children’s wellness raised even more controversies.

“When I started the initiative, it was difficult to bring people on board. I found that many were skeptical about  mental health issues, especially to do with children,” she shares.

To start off, Nyangasi relied on social contacts. These are people who had experienced the effects of mental stress, so it was easier to persuade them into joining her cause.

Nyangasi Mental Health Awareness Programme strives to teach children mindfulness, a type of meditation where one lives the moment and is aware of the happenings in their environment, as a way of keeping sanity.

“We do this by helping a child make sense of their experiences. Our programme integrates mindful lessons like “walk in our shoe”, slammer scenarios and activities such as ballet, art, yoga, and aerobics to build healthy relationships as well as cultivate a culture of kindness among children and the community,” explains the organisation founder.

The lessons are designed to inspire children to develop social-emotional skills and feel empowered to tackle issues through their actions, words, and gestures.

To effectively run the initiative, Nyangasi works with about 10 volunteers drawn from different career fields. For instance, they have a counsellor and a ballerina instructor.

“We mostly schedule mindful sessions and activities with local schools in the afternoon so that during morning hours, one can engage in other activities. I, for instance, help with the farm and household chores. On weekends, we explore our environment with children through hands-on activities like tree planting and art sessions,” she offers.

When the programme started, many of Nyangasi’s volunteers were worried about the children's attitude towards the lessons and activities tasked. The boys would make fun of the girls openly, causing them to shy from speaking up or whenever they were paired with boys.

As a result, most mindful sessions were characterised by lack of concentration, poor communication skills and hostility in peer interactions.

“I also remember how difficult it was to cultivate our mindful sessions in schools and churches. Thankfully, many quarters have started embracing the program and her activities,” Nyangasi recalls.

“But through follow-up sessions with parents, schools, and community members, many have confessed to seeing milestones in the children's behaviour towards themselves, families, and the environment. To me, that is very fulfilling,” she says.

Achievements

They also started offering ballet during mental health school holidays, aerobics and mindful sessions in Mau secondary school, football for mental health with local soccer teams and “dance your brains” for children and youth. Besides, there’s counselling and therapy sessions for all.

“Some of the challenges we have encountered include stigma around mental health, lack of support from some members of the community, volunteer and workforce shortages, gap knowledge, and lack of enough funds,” she shares.

Her vision for the programme is to see mental health integrated in the education system and also establish (mental health) screening in the communities.

“The programme aims to educate volunteers to understand the impact of psychological distress and mental illnesses, especially on children, therefore, removing the stigma around mental health," Nyangasi says.

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