Creatives and business founders of African heritage spoke to the writer and poet Innocent Whande about how their wellbeing has been strengthened through connection with people they admire.

Andrea Zhou is co-founder of mental health advocacy initiative Kundiso Foundation and a poet and investment analyst. Sean Chigumba is an artist under the name of Alpha Centauri, a songwriter and marketing specialist. Chengetayi Mnisi Samoyo is the founder of Pineapple Creative Studio, a choreographer, fitness trainer, dance instructor and YouTuber.

What is the value of role models to good mental health?

Chengetayi: It is important to have role models that are open and honest about the tough times and when they falter. In a world where everything is “perfect” and curated, it’s valuable for people to show us that they are still human, life hurts sometimes and we can all bounce back. 

Sean: Role models can play an important role in destigmatising perceptions about mental health in society. Having mental health conversations has been a taboo topic among many communities and most who suffer do so in silence. A role model can start the conversations by sharing their story and experience and encouraging others to seek help or inspire them to pursue a healthier lifestyle. Role models add a valuable contribution and a touch point for people who don’t know where to start or don't know they have a problem.

Andrea: I believe that having someone to look up to is good for your mental health because it gives you motivation to do better for yourself and to overcome certain things. When choosing a role model, it’s important to make sure that their values align to yours or are similar.

Who are your role models and what part have they played in you having good mental health day-to-day and particularly during this pandemic?

Chengetayi: My mother is my main role model; she has really been my rock in this pandemic. And with my new role as a mother, parenting in a pandemic is something I was never prepared for, but she has really helped me stay in control and take each day as it comes. 

"Identify someone close to you that gives you a sense of peace and make them your role model."

Sean: I don’t have any one person I consider to be a role model. I am always on the lookout for a positive message that can uplift my day and that can come from anywhere. People are fallible and make mistakes, so I don’t focus on the person. I focus on the positive message they are delivering and how I can use that to empower myself. I take only what is useful to me because no one role model can have all the answers. 

Andrea: My role models are my sister and my friend, Sharon. Firstly, my sister and I moved in together at the beginning of lockdown to “keep each other company”. She is very supportive and we kind of go through the same issues at the same time. Her values are very much linked to mine, so it helps us build each other out of a dark space and into a good mental health space.

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Sharon is my partner and the co-founder of our foundation “Kundiso”. At the beginning of lockdown, we started a month-long series on mental health via various platforms (mainly Instagram). This series brought to light how our relationship went from friends to be each other’s role model. We can communicate when things are going bad and when they are up. She has really been such a supportive part of my mental health during this pandemic.

What qualities make someone a good role model?

Chengetayi: They are authentic, they have integrity and are honest.

Sean: Positive influence is the key factor. Being a good role model doesn't mean that person is perfect. It means they are open and honest with their experiences and they have a message to share that encourages and uplifts others. A good role model should provide tools that empower and lessons that are relatable and useful.

Andrea: Having good morals, being compassionate, have a positive mind-set/ positive choice-making (skills), confidence and an ability to share values.

How would you describe good mental health?

Chengetayi: It’s understanding that it’s okay to not be okay sometimes and acknowledging the good and bad days. Staying away from the situations and people that trigger or negatively affect your mental wellness and protecting your peace. It's prioritising how you feel, creating and maintaining boundaries while keeping a stable state of mind regardless of situations. 

Sean: Understanding that there is a balance in all things and that it is perfectly fine to have a bad day. If you get a sore throat that lasts for a week you take care of your physical body until you are back to full health. When your mental health is in a bad state you should do the same to restore yourself. The starting point is knowing that there are good and bad days. The next part is knowing how to take care of yourself when things are bad. That to me is good mental health.

Andrea: I think firstly we shouldn’t call it bad or good mental health as most of the time when we are in a bad space, we have no control of that state. What I believe to be good mental health is having peace of mind, identifying the things that trigger you and staying away. Embracing that good space and doing the things you love.

What are your coping mechanisms when your mental health is affected?

Chengetayi: I dance, it always makes me feel better.

Sean: I take time to myself to do all the things I enjoy. Dancing, writing, social media breaks, reading a book, taking walks to clear my head. I also keep an audio journal where I sort through my thoughts and after a long day a good meditation session. 

Andrea: Identifying triggers and making sure I stay away from the triggers, journaling each emotion and going through the motions and living in the present. My escape is poetry.

What advice would you offer to people without role models in their lives to support them through any mental health issues?

Chengetayi: I’d tell them everyone needs someone at some point, when it gets overwhelming it’s okay to share how you are feeling with a friend or a mental health professional. There are so many online resources now, reach out.

Sean: You are not alone. Sharing what you are going through does not make you a burden to others. There may not be a safe space for you to confide in right away but don’t give up. Every bit of progress helps and even if you slide backwards, it’s okay. Start again tomorrow. You deserve happiness and it starts with learning to love yourself.

Andrea: Identify someone close to you that gives you a sense of peace and make them your role model. Remember that this person should be available to cheer you on in the good and in your low phase. Align with someone who you know that even during the low times you can hear their voice clearly, so that they help you overcome.

Innocent Whande writes and edits the Zimboson blog and has recently published his first poetry anthology.