De-Stigmatize, De-Colonize: Mental Health Through Local Arts in Nairobi’s Slum

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UNITA for Future advisor Professor Doris Sommer will speak at a Harvard Mind Brain Behavior (MBB) interfaculty initiative entitled, De-Stigmatize, De-Colonize: Mental Health Through Local Arts in Nairobi’s Slum. The speakers will present their findings from a clinical trial of Pre-Texts

The event will be held on February 16, at 12 pm ET / 6 pm CET and is accessible via Zoom. To receive access, register here.


Though mental illnesses—such as depression and anxiety—account for 45% of the global burden of disease among young people, help for these problems is rarely available for youths in low-income regions. Traditional psychotherapy and psychiatric treatments are long and costly and impractical in low-income contexts, such as Kenya, where there exists a paucity of caregivers. Government investment in mental healthcare is limited and societal stigma around mental health prevent young people from seeking help. As such, developing cost-effective intervention for youth mental health in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) is an urgent public health priority.

Over the past years, our multicultural team has worked on developing and testing interventions for youth mental health in Kenya. Our intervention development approach was informed by the belief that youth mental health interventions in low-resource communities may benefit from including empirically supported elements, using stigma-free content, and using trained community-based lay-providers. As such, we have built on the humanistic pedagogies to design a non-clinical arts-based intervention (called Pre-Texts) that is delivered as an afterschool program. Humanistic pedagogies show that decision-making in art induces self-efficacy and mobilizes internal resources to face adversity.

Over the past year, our team has conducted a gold-standard clinical trial of Pre-Texts with adolescents in Kibera, a large urban slum in Nairobi. In this talk, we will present findings that confirm that this kind of intervention may prove useful in other global settings where limited resources, mental illness stigma, or a shortage of professional’s limit access to mental health care. Our work shows that simple non-clinical interventions that focus on positive human attributes rather than psychopathology, are delivered by community-based lay-providers, and are developed through multicultural collaboration may reduce depression and anxiety symptoms and should be considered for use in low-resource settings.


Tom Osborn is the founder and CEO of Shamiri, a youth-led organization that is providing affordable, evidence-based mental health care to young people across Sub-Saharan Africa, and especially Kenya, where 45 percent of young people struggle with mental health problems. In a region where mental health professionals are scarce and stigma limits help-seeking, Shamiri implements affordable and personalized mental health interventions in community-based settings. When he was 19 years old, Osborn was named to the global Forbes “30 under 30 list” for social entrepreneurship.

Prof David Ndetei is Professor of Psychiatry, University of Nairobi, Kenya and the founder and Director of the Africa Mental Health Research  and Training Foundation (AMHRTF). He has served as the PI or Co-I for most Kenyan published clinical and community epidemiological studies  on mental health and substance abuse. He has over 358 scholarly publications including authoring 6 books and 21 monographs. All of them are on psychiatry and mental health with different books targeting lay readers, medical and paramedical students, general doctors and mental health specialists. He is finalizing the editing of his latest book “African Text Book of  Psychiatry and Mental Health: Integrated Clinical and Public Health Approaches”, which brings together multidisciplinary contributors from Africa and beyond.

Prof Doris Sommer is Ira and Jewell Williams Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and of African and African American Studies. She is the founder of Cultural Agents, an Initiative at Harvard and an NGO dedicated to reviving the civic mission of the Humanities. Her academic and outreach work promotes development through arts and humanities, specifically through “Pre-Texts” in Boston Public Schools, throughout Latin America and beyond. Pre-Texts is an arts-based training program for teachers of literacy, critical thinking, and citizenship.