By Linda Alepin and Moiyattu Banya-Keister
Edited by Maame Afon Yelbert-Sai
The teenage years are known for being emotionally trying times. The COVID-19 pandemic has isolated young people making the emotional maturing process even more difficult. One organization, Girls Empowerment Sierra Leone (GESL), is taking bold action to transform the teenage years’ experience. They have created a holistic curriculum and processes that allow critical conversations about mental health and well-being to occur in safer spaces for young women.
According to 2019 data from UNICEF, one in seven adolescents experience mental health conditions. The true burden of mental health disorders among adolescents globally could be direr than estimates suggest. The report emphasizes that increased data and evidence on mental health among adolescents, especially those in low- and middle-income countries, is urgently needed since they are at higher risk due to their economic condition. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the situation for adolescents.
As a country, Sierra Leone is experiencing a mounting mental health crisis brought on by the four-fold effects of the ten-year civil war and its associated violence, the Ebola epidemic, recurring mudslides /flash flood, and the Covid pandemic. What country and its people can endure all these calamities without it impacting their mental well-being? Multiple physical, emotional, and social challenges, including exposure to poverty, abuse, or violence, are resultant of the succession of crises faced over the years. Prolonged school lockdowns resulted in lower levels of peer engagement further contributing to poor mental health for youth.
Promoting psychological well-being and protecting adolescents from adverse experiences and risk factors will positively impact their potential to thrive, yet Child and Adolescent Mental Health (CAMH) and Wellbeing Care Development (WCD) have yet to be activated. Furthermore, propositions about ways, systems, and structures to respond to the huge treatment gap are missing.
What action is GESL taking?
With a grant from the International Women Leaders for the World Fund (I-WLWF), GESL is teaching teen girls about mental health and wellbeing, thereby giving them building blocks to maturity. In January 2021, GESL launched its Sister Circle Solution program with the aim of supplementing its many programs aimed at transforming the teenage girls’ experience. Early months in the project focused on enrolling five partner schools, recruiting ten Wellness Ambassadors, contracting with an expert course developer, and designing an age-appropriate curriculum. By May, despite the difficulties of operating with numerous Covid-19 roadblocks, the first training sessions for the Wellness Ambassadors were held. Shortly thereafter, the first circles at Freetown schools were convened. Using their own lunchtime, eighteen young women would meet with the two leaders in a circle to discuss parts of the curriculum. Each session was designed for thirty minutes with four sessions planned per month. The discussions were conducted in English.
What happens during the course?
Module 1 helps the Ambassadors to create a safer space for conversation, overviews the flow of the course, and defines mental wellbeing. This is inclusive of:
- Understanding mental health and wellbeing
- General signs of poor mental health and wellbeing
- Physical, social, and emotional effects of poor mental health and wellbeing
- Ways to deal with basic mental health or wellbeing challenges
In addition, each young woman signs a “sisterhood contract”.
Module 2 teaches the young women to identify impending crises with a focus on effective response and basic coping skills such as getting enough rest, eating healthy foods regularly, talking to and spending time with family, friends, and other trusted allies. It covers:
- Understanding what a crisis situation is all about
- The effects of crisis situations
- Coping strategies for positive mental health and wellbeing
- Self and community response plus self and community care in crisis situations.
Module 3 is focused on how to engage community support for help. Lessons include:
- Understanding what community support and help seeking behaviors entail
- Basic principles of community support and help seeking behaviors in crisis situations
- Watching for and protecting girls from abuse during community programs and events
- Basic relaxation skills for self and community care
Upon graduation, each young woman receives a certificate and food for their families.
What has been learned?
Before the project, it was known that conversations about mental health are new to the country. They were only accessible to the elite and were only provided by some of the international non-governmental organizations like the World Health Organization. When mental health emergencies occur, there are no support systems, particularly for young women. GESL saw an opportunity to create a new generation of young people who are intentional about their mental health and can influence their communities.
While the training of the Ambassadors went smoothly, GESL had under-estimated the need for direct staff support. GESL hired a mental health curriculum developer with extensive experience in the Sierra Leone context. Given the nascent nature of this topic, much of the content and vocabulary were new to the girls; it took more time than anticipated for it to be digested. For the first sister circles, GESL staff members participated alongside the Ambassadors and assisted them in teaching the material.
The girls brought a lot of creativity to the program — they wrote songs, poetry, and drew pictures to increase their absorption of the concepts.
Some of the wellness ambassadors had this to say:
Miatta Lamin – “I have learned to keep my emotions in check to help me identify mental health triggers. Also, I have learned that young girls like me; need to be able to identify mental health triggers as well. I plan to start a sister circle group in my village when I go for holidays. Other young girls should experience what I have learned as well.’’
Hawa Kamara – “During the sessions I was able to learn a lot about mental well-being. Initially, when I heard about mental health issues, I thought it only referred to ‘mad’ people. Now I know it is important for everyone especially adolescent girls to take care of their mental wellbeing.’’
GESL and I-WLWF have high hopes for expanding the program. GESL will be submitting a request for a 2022 sustaining grant that will allow them to engage schools outside of Freetown. What is learned through the next phase may eventually be turned into a worldwide effort.
About Girls Empowerment Sierra Leone (GESL)
GESL is a holistic girls driven organization that nurtures and transforms girls into social change agents. It offers programs that foster self-development, leadership, advocacy, social change, wellness education and well-being. GESL offers comprehensive year-round support and programming to girls while giving them the knowledge, tools, resources, and networks to make an impact in their own lives and their communities.
GESL provides self-development and empowerment programs for communities led by school going girls to bring out their leadership potential, develop their skills, ensure safe space for sisterhood and peer to peer learning, and provide enrichment opportunities for their future growth and learning.
GESL is intentional about keeping girls in school. GESL does this through an innovative self-development and knowledge hub that focuses on these key programmatic areas — leadership and self-development, wellbeing both mental and physical skills development, academic and career focused enrichment, and at the community and national level activism. Through its many innovative programs, GESL has directly impacted a total of 250 girls and indirectly 2000+ girls.
More about GESL can be found at www.girlsempormentsummitsl.org.
About International Women Leaders for the World Fund (I-WLWF)
I-WLWF is a donor-advised fund that provides resources to established women leaders working to transform their communities in Asia and Africa. It envisions vibrant and sustainable communities mobilized by whole women leaders. It fosters inclusive communities where women-led organizations are able to
- Access relevant resources, support, and expertise
- Work collaboratively to amplify their impact
- Share their learning globally
To donate to the 2021 fundraising campaign, go to https://kbfus.networkforgood.com/projects/53461-i-kbfus-funds-international-women-leaders-for-the-world. The fund is hosted by the King Baudouin Foundation United States.
About Women Leaders for the World (WLW)
WLW is a transformational leadership education program originally launched by the Global Women’s Leadership Network (GWLN). The program consists of classroom instruction plus ongoing coaching and advising. Its goal is to accelerate women’s leadership so that ripples of local impact create waves of global change. It is now managed by How Women Lead (HWL), https://www.howwomenlead.com/women-leaders-for-the-world.