Sitawa Wafula is a Kenyan mental health advocate and survivor of sexual violence. When we asked Sitawa what advice she has for fellow survivors, she knew exactly what she wanted to say: “Whatever you do, do not let what happened silence you.”
Sitawa’s courage to speak out about her experiences led her to create an award-winning mental health blog, earned her invitations to speak publicly about mental health, inclusion and sexual violence at TED and the UN General Assembly, and inspired her to develop a podcast, “My Mind, My Funk.” Through the podcast, Sitawa has conversations with people in Africa and of African descent about mental health, discussing personal journeys, challenges, taboos/myths, resilience and self-care. Sitawa also spends time working with The Mental Health Academy, a mentorship program providing early stage mental health service providers in Africa with skills, resources and community.
Through all her work, Sitawa uses her story as a survivor living with epilepsy and biopolar disorder to initiate conversations about mental health and create a more open dialogue about issues facing people living with mental health conditions.
This year, in observance of World Mental Health Day, we interviewed Sitawa about her journey to becoming an activist and advocate for mental health. Read on to learn more about (and get inspired by) her commitment to shattering the silence about mental health in Kenya and beyond.
Can you share a bit of your story, and how you became such a passionate advocate for mental health awareness in Kenya, Africa and beyond?
At the age of 17, I was diagnosed with epilepsy – which is more of a neurological illness. The year after that, I was sexually assaulted, the trauma of it affecting me psychologically. That unchecked trauma from the assault was later given a mental health diagnosis, bipolar disorder. In my early twenties, I found myself dealing with a dual diagnosis and not finding proper mental health information and support, especially for people in Africa, I began a blog through which I shared my own journey first as a release and coping mechanism for myself and with time, other people looking for mental health information and support across the continent started using it for their own healing journeys.
As the Together for Girls Violence Against Children Survey (VACS) data reveals, children and young people who experience sexual violence experience higher rates of suicidal ideation and mental distress compared to those who do not experience sexual violence. How can we do a better job of addressing the unique mental health challenges that survivors of sexual violence face?
One of the things would be awareness — consistent and continuous awareness — from stories of those who have gone through sexual violence to what should be done by those who have been assaulted, and how their caregivers can be of help along with the role of schools, police and community at large. Looking back, the only narratives I had heard about sexual assault were the negative ones that blamed the woman and asked, “What time was it when this happened?”, “What was she wearing?” and “What did she do to provoke the man?”
At that time, one of the things I really needed and also why I started sharing my own journey, were stories I could personally relate to. Stories that reminded me that someone, somewhere had walked this path before and even though they are still struggling, they are still here.
Second would be the need for safe spaces that are publicly known. I initially did not know what to do or where to go. This delay can make the psychological wounds related to sexual assault deeper.
What are your thoughts on how youth-led activism and advocacy can be integrated into the global effort to promote a better conception of mental health and also address sexual violence?
Continents like Africa have countries where a majority of the population is below 30 years of age, meaning that a large percentage of development work should be focused around youth. Instead of creating ideas from scratch or trying to force things that do not work for youth, it would be wise to have activities driven by youth-led activism and advocacy included in global conversations, not as tokens and for photo ops, but as equal players and that receive both investment and mentorship.
In your experience, how can communities best support survivors of sexual violence including their mental health? What are some norms, stigmas and stereotypes that should be addressed to better support and foster better mental health and well-being for all?
Speaking from an African cultural background, proper information about mental health should be made available for all. Myths about mental disorders being as a result of witchcraft or curses and that those living with such disorders will never result to anything and will be a constant burden to society need to be dealt with. Once communities see that a mental health diagnosis is not a death sentence and begin looking at the individual as a person and not from the lens of the misconceptions of the diagnosis, they will then be able to provide the needed environment for the person to have a smoother healing journey.
Communities should also understand that sexual violence is an act of violence on someone, and their space and being has been violated. The last thing survivors need is being second guessed and asked to go through their narrative over and over again.
What message would you like to send to survivors of sexual violence?
Whatever you do, do not let what happened silence you.
It will take time, but do the work. Want your healing badly enough to go for therapy sessions and work through all the emotions and feelings. Take time off if you need to, cry and shout if that is what it takes.
Also join a support group, the battle gets too heavy for one person to carry, so being part of the support group helps.
Use this negativity to find your strength….whatever you do, do not let it silence you.
Check out Sitawa’s weekly podcast, “My Mind, My Funk Show”, with new episodes posted every Wednesday at 11am East African Time. For more information on Sitawa’s work with The Mental Health Academy, check out this video showcasing one of their sessions.