Western researchers aim to use entrepreneurship in Kenya to make mental health the bottom line

An effective way to alleviate symptoms and improve outcomes for someone living with serious mental illness is through meaningful and productive employment. Using this knowledge, researchers at Western University have teamed up with colleagues at the University of Toronto, Queen’s University and the Africa Mental Health Foundation to develop a new model of recovery from mental illness in a low-income region of Kenya.

As the recipient of a Grand Challenges Canada Stars in Global Health grant funded by the Government of Canada, Dr. Arlene MacDougall, a clinician-researcher at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and her colleagues are beginning a project called Community REcovery Achieved Through Entrepreneurism (CREATE). The project, based in Machakos, Kenya, will develop a business that is specifically designed to employ people with mental illnesses and will provide an accompanying toolkit of psychological and social supports that promotes recovery and successful reintegration into society.

“The main goal is to employ people who would otherwise be marginalized in their employment or are unemployable,” said Dr. MacDougall. “It’s creating jobs that are real. People are paid fair wages. It’s in the community, it’s visible.”

In North America, the idea of “social businesses” that focus on opportunities for employment rather than on profit have been associated with reduced symptoms and an increased sense of self for those living with mental health concerns, as well as reducing the burden on the health care system.

“The idea is that they’re not patients, they’d be receiving this psychological and social support as employees,” she said.

Dr. MacDougall says Machakos in particular was selected because of a major gap in mental health care services and rehabilitation for patients with serious mental illnesses.

“There are really no programs to assist in their rehabilitation and integration into the community. In countries like Kenya, there’s no real social safety net and there’s a high level of stigma,” she said. “For any of us, having something meaningful and productive to do during the day is vital. And this is especially true for people living with serious mental illness.”

The $112,000 grant to Dr. MacDougall and her team is one of 23 announced today under the Grand Challenges Canada Stars in Global Health program, which supports unique, transformative ideas for addressing health challenges in developing regions.