During their time at Bishop Gatimu Ngandu Girls High School, Maureen Gikonyo and Immaculate Wanjiru did not have much in common.
Despite the fact that both of them are 23, and run Speak, Mind and Love Foundation, there was little else connecting them.
Immaculate, a school prefect, was strict in her duties and a subtle bookworm who was reserved and spent a lot of time reading. Maureen, on the other hand, was an outgoing, sociable and hardworking student who loved to participate in extra-curricular activities.
“I had difficulties opening up and letting people in,” Immaculate recounts.
The duo completed their secondary school education in 2013, after which Maureen joined Moi University main campus while Immaculate enrolled at a satellite campus at the same institution.
Because they were studying at the same university, the pair would regularly check up on each other, as is typical of most former classmates.
“Whenever we spoke, our discussions usually involved finding out how the other person was fairing. We did not share much about our personal struggles,” Maureen shares.
In her calling letter, Maureen had been invited to study a course that was outside her preferred choices. She got into a relationship with a senior student. This student, it later emerged, took advantage of her naivety as a freshman, and was only using her to boost his ego.
Back home, Maureen’s mother was battling leukaemia, and being the primary care giver was overwhelming for her. It was not long before she slumped into depression and turned to alcohol for solace. She was only 19.
On the other side of campus, Immaculate was enduring her own fair share of challenges. She had developed low self-esteem as a result of having been bullied in primary and secondary school and like Maureen, she had got into a relationship with a young man who was emotionally abusive. To numb her frustrations, she too ended up turning to alcohol.
Today, six years later and several crucial lessons learnt, Maureen and Immaculate run an initiative called Speak, Mind and Love. Here, they use their experiences to enlighten people on mental awareness, and to encourage them to seek the necessary help.
“We founded the organisation last year after we observed that cases of suicide, depression and anger management issues especially among the youth have been on the rise.
One day, Maureen reached out to me and after a long, candid discussion, she asked me what I would like to do. I told her I was passionate about community service. Apparently, she shared the same interest, and this fact brought us even closer. We started spending more time together and confiding in each other. Because we had gone through it, we decided to do our part to prevent other young people from the effects of depression, by enlighten the society on issues of mental health,” shares Immaculate, who is about to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Social Work.
The two adopted the phrase ‘A mentally healthy society starts with you and me,’ and made it their mantra. With a team of 18 volunteers, they visit various learning institutions and religious centres where they let their audience know the importance of maintaining good mental health.
During these visits, they give out leaflets containing detailed but simplified information on how to take care of individuals dealing with mental health issues, and the need to show love and concern for one another.
“We started with schools and places of worship, and the feedback has been impressive. People who are employed in various companies have contacted us and we are planning to incorporate workplaces in our visits. We work with a team of professional volunteer counsellors,” Maureen offers.
“Since we started doing this, we have received overwhelming support from close family members. They encourage us every day and offer to support us financially when need be.
“But, there are those who feel like we do not have what it takes, and that we should channel our efforts into looking for employment, now that we are waiting to graduate. But we will not relent,” says Immaculate.
Looking back to that period when she was struggling with depression, Maureen notes that the worst thing about it is that most patients are usually neglected by those close to them.
“I lost many friends during that time and even more when I got dependent on alcohol. Some friends felt like it was something I could just snap out of if I wanted. They did not understand that it was so difficult to come out of addiction.
“It has been a progressive journey towards healing, and we endeavour to help as many people as possible to recover,” she says.
Besides making visits to the various institutions, the duo hold forums targeting minority groups. Last month, for instance, they engaged single mothers and fathers in a discussion on how to thrive in a society that can be judgmental and unkind.
“While on this journey, we have realised that there is a lot of stigma around the subject of mental health. It has not been given the attention it deserves.
“As such, we will be holding a walk in October this year to raise more awareness on this subject and to help reduce the stigma. We are present and active on social media where we offer online counselling and daily tips on depression,” says Maureen.