How do you get youth to talk about mental health? Design a radio programme

Today is August 12th— International Youth Day. According to the United Nations, “the engagement and participation of youth is essential to achieve sustainable human development. Yet often the opportunities for youth to engage politically, economically and socially are low or non-existent".1 One aspect that is missing from many discussions about youth and sustainable development is mental health.

Adolescents are among the highest need populations in regards to mental health support, especially in low and middle income countries (LMIC). Yet resources in LMIC for prevention and treatment of mental health problems are limited, in particular for youth. If left untreated, mental disorders can impede all aspects of health, including emotional well-being and social development, leaving young people feeling socially isolated, stigmatized, and unable to optimize their social, vocational, and interpersonal contributions to society.2 For these reasons, promoting adolescent mental health is an important element of youth civic participation.  As Thembi Thadzi, program officer at Farm Radio Trust in Malawi argues,

“We need to involve youth because they cover such a large part of the population, and they need to have a voice in everything we do if we want to achieve change in Malawi.”

A former youth parliamentarian herself, she says, “We can’t make a difference in this nation without young people”.

An innovative program that commenced in 2012 is at the forefront of these efforts in eastern Sub-Saharan Africa. Funded by Grand Challenges Canada, and led by a program team comprised of Farm Radio International (FRI), Dr. Stan Kutcher, Farm Radio Trust (Malawi), and the World University Services of Canada, this program in getting youth to talk about mental health, and getting it on the policy agenda as a public health priority in Malawi and Tanzania.

But how did we get young people interested in an issue like mental health? We worked with local radio stations in each country to design a radio program just for them, a program that talks about issues important to young people, gives them a platform to amplify their voices, and respects them as citizens and decision-makers.

Nkhawa Njee in Malawi and Positive Mood in Tanzania have grown to be among the most popular radio programs for young people in each country. The shows aim to give young people, parents and teachers information about the mental health challenges teenagers face. Teenage stress, depression and low self-esteem are as real in Malawi and Tanzania as they are anywhere in the world. But mental health issues are not well understood or recognized.

As part of a large project in Tanzania and Malawi funded by Grand Challenges Canada, FRI is using radio to bring knowledge about mental health issues to students, teachers, youth workers and parents.  The programs combine FRI’s participatory methodology with entertainment, radio drama and call-in shows bolstered by interactive mobile technologies to facilitate ongoing feedback with youth to ensure that the issues that are important to them are raised on the radio show.

And young people love it. The programs attract an average of 500,000 listeners each week, and receive tens of thousands of text messages and Facebook posts by young people giving feedback, telling the radio hosts about what topics they would like to hear about, and asking questions about mental health or requesting to be connected with a mental health expert. Mental health experts trained in adolescent mental health and counseling through the program follow up with the students, whose teachers have also been trained to counsel and identify issues like depression and anxiety.

Joy, the producer of Malawi’s Nkhawa Njee program aired every week on Radio 2 explains, “You wouldn’t expect it even just two years ago. And this program is changing the culture of the youth in Malawi because they are now opening up to talk about depression whenever they are stressed”. Their program is shattering taboos on mental health. And when the radio hosts visit secondary schools to do outreach, young people are eager to share their stories. Joy recalls, “some tell us the most personal issues, like 'look, I feel like I want to kill myself.' It’s not easy to open up to someone and tell us something personal like that.” A student who is a member of the mental health club in her school also describes the positive impact the program has had on her life: “Being in the club has taught me how people in the society have been affected by Depression and stress and how it can cause problems to our body and to our mind,” says Chisomo. She adds that the show has helped her “to find a kind of refuge” when dealing with the stress of work, health and family. 

In addition to a weekly, interactive radio program, we are working with teachers to deliver sessions about mental health in their classrooms and training health providers to identify and treat adolescent mental health disorders.  As the awareness on mental health grows, so does the need for mental health care services. Three years ago, before the start of the integrated mental health program, Depression was only whispered about as a misunderstood problem in Malawi and Tanzania. Now educators, health providers and policy makers are starting to recognize how important it is to address mental health problems for young people, who are actively participating as advocates for better mental health services in their communities.  

  1. UN International Youth Day 2015
  2. Kutcher, S (2008). Why Youth Mental Health Is So Important. The Medscape Journal of Medicine, 10(12); 275.
Related Resources: 

Heather Gilberds is the Program Manager for the Mental Health Program, Farm Radio International


Children and adolescents
Prevention and promotion
Treatment, care and rehabilitation
Training, education and capacity building
How useful did you find this content?: 
Your rating: None
No votes yet
Log in or become a member to contribute to the discussion.