MENTAL HEALTH

How Shamiri Institute is shaping the future of mental health in Africa

In Kenya, research has shown that nearly 1 in 2 high school students struggle with mental health problems.

In Summary
  • Shamiri was founded at Harvard University by award-winning Kenyan entrepreneur Tom Osborn and rising global mental health researcher and PhD student Katherine Venturo-Conerly.
  • Kenya’s Shamiri Institute believes that character strength interventions may be the answer to addressing the challenge of youth mental health and securing the future of Africa’s youth.
Shamiri Institute Fellows during a team meeting. Fellows lead group programs in schools.
Shamiri Institute Fellows during a team meeting. Fellows lead group programs in schools.
Image: SHAMIRI INSTITUTE

It’s a Tuesday evening at Elite School in Kibera. The students have just finished the day’s classes. They now gather in small groups of 8 – to – 12 in the school compound. These groups are led by a recent high school graduates called a Thrive! Fellow.

In these groups, the students complete reading, writing and group discussion activities. They learn about how they see challenges as opportunities to grow (a growth mindset), how they can notice and appreciate small things in their life (gratitude), and how they can align their actions according to their values (values affirmations). Sometimes they also learn about study skills or use a text as a raw material for creative and artistic expression (through a program called Pre-Texts). At the end of the 60-minute sessions, the students leave with homework activities that give them opportunities to apply what they learn in the sessions.

These activities, which are offered by Shamiri Institute, seem simple at face value but their impact, according to research done at Harvard University, can be big. For example, students who complete these activities have reported improvements in their wellbeing, mental health, academic grades, and social relationships. Officially, scientists call these kind of programs “character strength” or wise interventions. Character strength interventions are brief and simple, positively focused interventions that target specific psychological processes to change how young people view themselves, their world, and their future.

Founded at Harvard University, Kenya’s Shamiri Institute believes that character strength interventions may be the answer to addressing the challenge of youth mental health and securing the future of Africa’s youth.

Shamiri Institute's staff during a training program on Pre-Texts
Shamiri Institute's staff during a training program on Pre-Texts
Image: SHAMIRI INSTITUTE

Mental health cases are on the rise

Around the world, mental health and psychosocial problems are on the rise and especially amongst youths. According to research, 45% of the global burden of disease in young people aged 10-24 is caused by mental health problems. The economic cost of mental health problems is $6 trillion per year. The most common mental health problems are depression and anxiety. Countries in Sub – Saharan Africa are also the most affected.

In Kenya, research has shown that nearly 1 in 2 high school students struggle with mental health problems. Girls and Form Four students are the most affected. This challenge of youth mental health has only become worse after the COVID-19 context. For example, we have seen increased cases of psychosocial issues, suicides and suicide attempts, and behavioral issues such as the burning of secondary schools that is on the rise.

Students at Elite participating in a Pre-Texts session
Students at Elite participating in a Pre-Texts session
Image: SHAMIRI INSTITUTE

But the team at Shamiri believes that the simple character-strengthening programs like theirs can help expand access to mental health and psychosocial support for young people in secondary schools and university. “For us, the link between psychosocial issues and life outcome is very clear.” Tom Osborn, Shamiri’s Co – Founder and C.E.O says, “and we believe that the weight of the scientific evidence confirms that positively-focused character strengthening interventions can alleviate psychosocial issues and help secure the life outcomes of Africa’s future generation.”

Shamiri’s beginnings: Harvard’s William James Hall

Shamiri was founded at Harvard University by award-winning Kenyan entrepreneur Tom Osborn and rising global mental health researcher and PhD student Katherine Venturo-Conerly.

Shamiri Institute Founders Tom Osborn and Katherine Venturo-Conerly.
Shamiri Institute Founders Tom Osborn and Katherine Venturo-Conerly.
Image: SHAMIRI INSTITUTE

Tom was born and raised in Awendo, Migori County before going to Alliance High School. Before Harvard, Tom had developed an international reputation as a community mobilizer and social entrepreneur. He founded his first startup, GreenChar, when he was 18. He was the youngest Echoing Green Fellow and was named on Forbes as a 30 under 30 Social Entrepreneur globally. This year, Tom was named as a TED Fellow, an award given to individuals who have demonstrated remarkable achievements, the potential impact of their work and their commitment to community building. His TED talk will be published on December 15th.

“I never thought I’d be working in psychology and mental health, at Harvard I started by studying Economics but quickly realized that the challenge of my generation was securing the future of Africa’s youth.” Tom said, “Psychology offered simple tools that can have amazing effects.” Tom graduated from Harvard in May 2020 and moved back to Kenya this January to work on Shamiri full-time.

Katherine was raised in Princeton, New Jersey. She became interested in mental health during time as an undergraduate at Harvard and is now a PhD student in clinical psychology at Harvard. Her research focuses on youth therapy design, testing, and dissemination. She is a ’19-’20 Phi Beta Kappa member: this distinction is given is only given to the highest achieving students. Katherine is the Scientific Director of Shamiri Institute.

“It was during my college years that I realized the need for efficient and scalable mental health interventions for youth around the world,” Katherine says, “I’m thrilled to get to work at Shamiri on designing, testing, and disseminating interventions that help improve the life outcomes of Africa’s youth.”

Since 2018, Tom and Katherine have worked together with collaborators like John Weisz of Harvard University, David Ndetei of the Africa Mental Health Research and Training Foundation, and Christine Wasanga of Kenyatta University. Shamiri now has 17 full-time employees at their Nairobi office and is geared to serve thousands of youths across Africa.

Shamiri Institute's Hilda Nyareso giving out certificates
Shamiri Institute's Hilda Nyareso giving out certificates
Image: SHAMIRI INSTITUTE

Shamiri’s future: Scaling impact across Africa

Since 2018, Shamiri has published more than 15 studies on youth mental health that is forming the backbone of scientific knowledge on this issue. One paper was recently published in the world-leading JAMA Psychiatry. This research work is important for Shamiri because as an evidence-based organization, it is the data that informs how they scale and roll out their products.

The organization is now focused on amplifying its impact and working with as many young people as possible. “Our goal is 100% to scale to as many young people as possible in the coming years,” Tom said, “we are working on really exciting products to achieve this vision.”

Katherine also believes that Shamiri’s continued research efforts will further our understanding of whether and how character strength interventions can improve the health of young people in the long term. “I am excited that we get to work with the Templeton Foundation to further assess the evidence-base for our work in the long term. We are now able to research how our interventions affect long-term physical and mental health and wellbeing outcomes, as well as the mechanisms through which they do.”

Africa is a young continent. Half of the population is 19 years and younger. It is apparent that we need bold solutions to secure the future of Africa’s young potential. Shamiri Institute is helping young people fulfill their life potential and it is doing it while putting Kenya in the global map of scientific research and innovation. To keep up with their work, follow Shamiri Institute, Tom and Katherine on social media.

References:

Osborn, T.L., Venturo-Conerly, K.E., Wasil, A.R. et al. Depression and Anxiety Symptoms, Social Support, and Demographic Factors Among Kenyan High School Students. J Child Fam Stud 29, 1432–1443 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-019-01646-8

Osborn TL, Venturo-Conerly KE, Arango G. S, et al. Effect of Shamiri Layperson-Provided Intervention vs Study Skills Control Intervention for Depression and Anxiety Symptoms in Adolescents in Kenya: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Psychiatry. 2021;78(8):829–837. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2021.1129