Leyla Semkiwa, is a mental health champion, providing psychosocial support at the Kenya Red Cross Society, Mombasa branch. Having joined the team as a volunteer in January 2020, the COVID -19 pandemic is her first emergency. The emergency has presented her an opportunity to provide Psychological First Aid and Psychosocial Support for health care workers and members of the community. Mombasa County was together with Nairobi were the first counties to report high numbers of COVID-19 cases in April. The mystery around the new disease combined with the measures that the government initiated to curb the spread which disrupted peoples’ way of lives had a big psychological effect on the people of the Coastal town.
Given that Mombasa residents are predominantly Muslim, it did not help matters that movement restrictions were enforced during the holy month of Ramathan when families and friends traditionally congregate in prayer and to share meals. The call centre was set up jointly by the Kenya Red Cross Mombasa Branch and the County Government of Mombasa at the time when Old Town was getting into the lockdown situation. The call centre was set up to respond to emergency cases from that area during the lock down. Most calls were from people asking for food, water, garbage collection, power, health emergencies etc but a few others just wanted to speak to someone about their anxiety. At the height of the lockdown, the call centre would receive over 200 with at least five being distress calls from people in need of counselling services. Counselling requests were from people affected with COVID-19 either directly or indirectly including those in quarantine and isolation centres.
Leyla recalls one late night distress call from a client who had taken a COVID-19 test and was waiting for her results. “I could feel the uncertainty and fear in the voice of the caller on the other end of the line,” Leyla recalls. She says maintaining confidence and calmness when dealing with such calls is key. “I started psycho-educating the caller on COVID -19 facts, explained about the isolation period and the treatment methods and told her that she needed not to be afraid. I also offered physiotherapy, advising the caller to focus on self and things they're in control of as COVID 19 is a global pandemic indiscriminately affecting the whole world,” She said. Living in a community that see mental health as a taboo, witchcraft and the mad man in the street, her desire is to see a community that is willing to open up about mental healthcare problems affecting ordinary people.
Today, Leyla is an agent of change promoting good mental health culture with those around her whilst creating a difference by spreading awareness around the stigma terming it as both an emotional and physical wellbeing. Leyla, who holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from Moi University in Eldoret, says life can be overwhelming so it is important for psychologists to be around and offer a helping hand and encourages those in need not to shy away but seek help. “Psychologists offer a listening ear that is free of judgment and solid advice for those with mental health issues. Psychologists offer a variety of proven effective treatments to help people improve their lives,” She says. “It is amazing to notice a behavioural change of self - acceptance accompanied by staying positive duringCovid-19,”She adds. The stigma and disruptions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in increased stress and mental illness among the population. Worst affected are people in quarantine, isolation and their families.
To address this challenge, the National Taskforce on COVID-19 set up a subcommittee on mental health. The subcommittee is co-chaired by the Ministry of Health Mental Health Division and Kenya Red Cross Society. The Kenya Red Cross has made an available its 24 hour free counselling service on its emergency call number 1199 that is accessible countrywide while branches also continue to work with the respective county governments to provide services similar Leyla’s work in Mombasa county. With support from our partners The European Union, Mastercard and Dannish Red Cross, Kenya Red Cross Society has since reached over 5,000 people with telecounseling services.