Five things we learned from doing a series on community-led mental health projects around the world – Positive News

Parents in Guatemala have an enviable childcare situation and stringers have the best jobs in the world behind the scenes in our Developing Mental Wealth series

We’re halfway through our series looking at people and projects that are truly changing lives by boosting the mental health of people in all four corners of the world. From Yemen to Liberia and Guatemala, what have we learned so far? Series editor Daisy Greenwell reports.

1. Stringers have one of the best jobs in the world

You may not have heard the word stringer, but you have read their work. Strings are freelance journalists who report on the ground in all kinds of countries for news organizations, named for the string that once measured their column inches (and determined their salary). So far, in this series, we’ve commissioned journalists in six countries, sending them into the middle of some of the world’s most influential mental health projects. Often, I wish I could be there rather than at my desk in England, talking face-to-face with visionary founders and the people they are changing lives. There aren’t many jobs that allow such an opportunity to approach, to ask as many questions as you want, to people who are really changing things.

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2. Reporting in the global south is more complex than in the UK

Behind every article we publish is a whole sweat, thought and logistical jiggery pokery from a team of people, from the editor to the journalist, photographer and interviewees. Making sure everyone is in the same place at the same time can be a logistical challenge. What’s more, it turns out, when it takes place in a country 5,000 miles away, both geographically and culturally.

For our article published earlier this month on Indigenous women’s circles empowering Guatemalan women after decades of marginalization, we commissioned Sandra Cuffe, a journalist in Guatemala, to visit the project. He immediately faced an unusual physical obstacle to the execution of his commission.

Cuffe explains: Indigenous leaders led months of pro-democracy protests, including weeks of highway blockades, in response to prosecutors’ efforts to undermine the results of the elections. Reporting in a country like Guatemala can be tricky, because between political crises and the poor state of the country’s highway infrastructure, there’s no guarantee travel is possible.

We encountered a different, but equally difficult problem in Yemen, when trying to photograph members of Best group ever, a free sports group spread across the country, helping people stay fit and healthy during a civil war. On the eve of the photographers’ visit to al-Thawra Park in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, where one of the groups was meeting before dawn prayers, the government announced a ban on groups of people gathering outside. Her photoshoot is scuppered for the foreseeable future.

In each case, we have no choice but to be flexible, adjust our plans, and plow through no matter what. Note to self an article that takes a few weeks to fulfill in the UK may take twice as long as when working in countries like this.

Yemeni men exercise together in the capital city’s Sanaas al-Thawra Park, as part of the free Swedish exercise club ‘Best Team’ which has spread across the country. Photo: Reuters

3. Parents in Guatemala have an enviable childcare situation

When photographer James Rodrigues files his shots of Indigenous women’s circles project in Guatemala, we were interested to see many women carrying babies that were not theirs on their backs. It seems that parenting in Guatemala is different to the UK in that it is shared more equally with the community. It started with a new study at the University of Cambridge of the Indigenous Mbendjele BaYaka in the Republic of Congo, which caught my attention. The researchers found that in this community, more than half of the babies’ cries were attended to by the mothers’ support network rather than by her. Would a British mother who is home alone all day with her baby agree with the authors of the study, who concluded that there is a mismatch between the conditions in which people are changed to care for babies, and the situation many parents find themselves in today. ? A straw poll of my friends would suggest 100% yes.

Elsa Cortez, 26, weaves a belt while carrying her 1-year-old niece in Guatemala. Women’s groups run by indigenous women changed her life. Photo: James Rodriguez

4. Again, the Nordic countries lead the way

What is it about the Nordic countries and their ability to top most human development rankings, from public health care to education and happiness? Even those who experience psychosis, one of the most feared symptoms of mental illness, fare better in Finland. Only 15% of people diagnosed with schizophrenia work in the UK. In Finland, 86% of patients with serious mental health conditions return to work and education. How? In the 1980s when Finland had one of the highest rates of psychosis in Europe, psychiatrists developed a model of care that changed the outcomes of those in crisis. Now the UK is trying it out, with a five-year study of the open dialogue approach in NHS mental health clinics in Dorset, Kent and London. The results are due in April 2024, and psychiatrists we spoke to believe they could revolutionize the treatment of mental illness in Britain, and beyond.

psychosis finnish

Dr Russell Razzaque, the east London psychiatrist who was key in bringing the Finnish approach to psychosis, known as ‘open dialogue’, to the UK. Photo: Sam Bush

5. Many of the most exciting grassroots mental health projects are happening in Africa

We scour the planet looking for great community-led mental health projects, and time and time again, they seem to have their roots in Africa. From Friendship Benches of Zimbabwe, in a project that provides CBT and cash transfers to the former child soldiers in Liberiaand the Kenyan NGO aimed at end FGM through intergenerational healingAfrica often leads the way when it comes to thinking about mental health.

While we want to ensure a good geographical spread in the series, my main priority as editor is the stories themselves. Stories that showcase the most creative, interesting and potentially scalable ways communities are finding to reduce mental health stressors in their lives. The number of African stories truly reflects the most exciting developments in the world of mental health. If you have a project to suggest, email me Id love to hear from you.

Main photo: FGM survivors at a trauma survivor leadership training course provided by Girl Generation in Kenya: Zeitun Abass Omar, Ralia Roba and Dekha Ahmed. Credit: Khadija Farah

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