Contributions by Elmard Rigan | Written by Hannah Bain
The Story of Elmard Rigan
Elmard Rigan, known by his friends as Rigan, has always been interested in understanding how people think. Growing up in Kibera, he witnessed how poverty and inequality posed challenges for both physical and mental health, especially among vulnerable youth populations. Though physical and mental health are interrelated, Rigan frequently observed residents seek help for physical ailments while struggling silently with mental health and neurological disorders such as depression, anxiety, developmental disorders, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Determined to address unmet needs in his community, Rigan studied counseling and psychology at the University of Nairobi in Kenya and eventually returned to Kibera, where he found work with Carolina for Kibera (CFK). Rigan first joined CFK as a volunteer in 2016, but, after just three (3) months, the organization hired him as one of its first psychological counselors. In 2018, Rigan continued exploring the links between physical and mental health by also assuming the role of an HIV testing services provider.
“I have always called Kibera home, and I feel like my journey has prepared me for the work that I do now,” said Psychological Counselor Elmard Rigan. “I know the challenges and problems present in the community, and I understand the way that people think.”
Advocating for more Holistic Healthcare
Though he works as a part of CFK’s Education and Livelihoods and Youth Friendly Services (YFS) team, Rigan offers counseling services and HIV testing services to consenting clients across CFK’s programs. One day, he may be counseling teenagers about sexual and reproductive health. The next, he may be offering psychological support services to an adult who recently tested positive for HIV.
“Physical and mental health are not completely separate,” Rigan noted. “To support people effectively, we have to consider the many factors that impact their holistic health and provide more comprehensive care.”
For example, though cerebral palsy is primarily considered an issue of motor impairment and physical health, individuals diagnosed with the disorder are at a higher risk of facing mental health challenges such as depression or anxiety. Despite this, mental health is often overlooked or misinterpreted in the management of cerebral palsy.
On one occasion, Rigan worked with a child suffering from psychological issues due to cerebral palsy. Understanding the importance of treating both physical and mental health, Rigan immediately connected the child’s family to government programs and a mental health facility. CFK also connected the child’s single mother to a job opportunity, allowing her to afford long-term, critical care for her child.
Mental Health During COVID-19
While the coronavirus is a respiratory illness that poses serious threats to physical health, it has also adversely impacted mental health around the world. Mandatory curfews and quarantine, the loss of jobs, and the closure of schools and gathering places due to the COVID-19 pandemic have heightened stress levels and limited personal connections, resulting in an increase in anxiety and depression.
Working primarily with the youth in Kibera, Rigan has also noticed an increase in teenage pregnancy, rape, and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and the closure of schools, which often serve as safe spaces for youth in the community.
“Students are out of school, and it is now more important than ever to talk to them about their health and have conversations about how to stay safe,” Rigan said. “We lead conversations like this at the Youth Friendly Centre (YFC) because we want youth to be able to make informed decisions about their physical and mental health.”
Addressing the Stigma Surrounding Mental Health
While discussions about mental health are becoming more common, Rigan noted that a gap still remains because of the few resources and deep-rooted cultural norms that equate mental health struggles with “demons.”
“Even when mental health services exist, it can be difficult to encourage people to access them,” Rigan added. “Many still do not recognize mental health as an acute issue, and many more do not access services because they do not want their neighbors to think that they have demons.”
In conjunction with youth-friendly services such as sexual reproductive health and mentorship, CFK’s Young Health and Wellness Centre has offered psychological counseling and led discussions about mental health with the youth in Kibera since opening in 2019.
CFK’s Girls’ Empowerment Program (GEP) has also touched on mental health by providing adolescent girls and teenage mothers with spaces where they are physically, emotionally, and psychologically safe to share their experiences and find support. In partnership with the Adelle Onyango Initiative, the GEP’s newest project, Safe 24/7, further explores the topic of mental health by helping to build resilience and coping strategies among survivors of sexual abuse and SGBV
By integrating mental health services and discussions into existing CFK programs, Rigan hopes to help debunk myths and address stigma surrounding the topic.
“We have a long way to go concerning discussions about mental health, but we are making progress,” concluded Rigan.
Learn more about the mental health resources available at CFK, and engage in discussions about mental health during this year’s #WorldMentalHealthDay.