SocialEx Episode 9: Erin Rotich talks about her journey in mental health and learning

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August 14, 2020

SocialEx Episode 9: Erin Rotich talks about her journey in mental health and learning

By Chris Wogan

Manager, Marketing

In this episode of SocialEx, the podcast from Humentum, George Miller sits down with Erin Rotich, Director of Learning at Thrive Worldwide. Erin shares her journey in counselling, learning and global development and discusses her organization’s approach to offering support in training and mental health.

Below is an abridged excerpt from the episode: "Erin Rotich talks about her journey in mental health and learning"

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George Miller: We began, unsurprisingly by talking about the pressures of the times we find ourselves in, when COVID-19 has changed so many aspects of our private and professional lives. With life so altered, often so restricted, is creating new stresses for individuals, organizations and whole societies, and new challenges for professionals like Erin. I asked her to tell me how she thinks Kenyan society has changed since COVID-19.

Erin Rotich: It’s changed everything. This is a community in general that values face-to-face interactions, that still values group-thinking, in a good way. Like, “what does the community say?” is a powerful voice. So it’s been very tough at first, on a whole different level for people to work from home. For example: I can’t see your face, on the non-video things, or I can’t tell what you’re communicating because, from here up (indicates head and shoulders) is not enough for a Kenyan. How you stand, how close you are, all of those dynamics are missing.

And then, we have a lot of different cultures within Kenya, so there’s a lot we’re missing in that too and not gathering-traditions which have been questioned around the world, funerals, weddings - all of those. So there’s been a lot of grief, and this is what we talk a lot about as psychologists. About losses and changes and those kind of things. I think at the same time Kenya specifically, we have an election coming up in about two years, but believe it or not that’s fast enough. We’re already prepping our minds and hearts for that. There’s been a lot of political things going on at the same time.

Like many people in the world, when you have COVID-19, but then you have some other kind of environmental stressor, it just makes it bigger. It’s created this how-are-we-talking-to-each-other and trying-to-be-kind-to-each-other in a time when this has happened, and what I have noticed is a lot of people paying more attention, intentionally trying to be kinder to each other. My big passion is taking care of their staff. That has tripled I think. HR people, CEOs and COOs have said “Oh, actually, I really do care. And I want them to know I care. And so, how do I intentionally deliver that?” which is much different than before.

As a child I was very unhappy with the lack of diversity in my town, in how I thought and how I grew up, even in my religion. I just knew from a very young age, I’m only getting one side.

 

George Miller: As someone coming into East Africa from the United States, it’s like learning a new language isn’t it? To listen and not judge according to your pre-existing cultural rules, but actually listen and work out what is going on, in order to be able to communicate within that cultural context.

Erin Rotich: You’re right, nothing prepared me for that level of group activity until I got married and immersed myself in this culture. I joke with people I think I wouldn’t have been able to do a cross-cultural move and a cross-cultural marriage. In general, it was a very big waking up process. I tell people a lot, I am a big extrovert, which you don’t find that with a lot of psychologists. That helps me. The noise and the chaos – I also have four kids and am about to have five – that’s okay with me. There’s something about the open-door policy of coming to visit without telling you, all of that kind of stuff I love, so that helps me adjust. Still, it’s very different, the non-linear conversations, and the circle all being involved, and the joking is really rapid in Kenya, that’s a really cultural thing, we’re quite blunt and make fun of each other in our jokes – it’s taken me a while to get used to.

Now since then I’ve rethought that a lot – thinking about white-saviourism, and colonialism, and how that applies, and this echo of that. Whenever you do have a lot of privilege and you come to this continent you have to encounter that at some period.

 

George Miller: Take me back Erin. I’m always interested, at that moment when someone finishes their studies, and they’re thinking about the direction their life is going to take, what sort of things are motivating their decisions. I wonder if you can cast your mind back to that point. Do you feel like your course was already set towards the things which motivate you now, or did you take some time to find your direction?

Erin Rotich: This is a big question. I’ll try to tell it in parts. What got me into counselling and therapy is that like many other people it changed my life. I was diagnosed with an inflammatory disease, and the talking cure brought more healing into my body than the medicine I was on. I didn’t understand that at all. That was a revolution to me. That’s partially what got me into counselling and therapy and all of those terms – every country uses a different term actually. That’s why I pursued my Master’s degree. As a child I was very unhappy with the lack of diversity in my town, in how I thought and how I grew up, even in my religion. I just knew from a very young age; I’m only getting one side.

So, believe it or not, my parents would host people from different countries that exposed me to “Oh, there are other sides”. From an early age I had that travel bug, and I went to Senegal in 2002, which was somewhere in the middle of my university Bachelor’s degree and it was partially due to my extroversion and my love for people that I set foot there and thought gosh, in a weird way I fit better here, than I do where I’m from. Now since then I’ve rethought that a lot – thinking about white-saviourism, and colonialism, and how that applies, and this echo of that. Whenever you do have a lot of privilege and you come to this continent you have to encounter that at some period. I have married a person of colour. It’s been a very big challenge to rethink through what parts of my history were motivated by “I can help other people! Watch me go help”, and where that has shifted.

Now what I find is “Do psychologists help? Yes, we completely do.” I believe in the talking cure, I’m very big into trauma therapy, and that has a big need in this area, a need for it to be accessed easier than it is: cheaper, more frequently – all those kinds of things. I think what has stayed true, the line, the entire time is that my love for people needs to be in a more collective, communal society. It even makes me sad to live in Nairobi sometimes because we are losing that. It’s a big city, and it’s international which is something I love, but we’re losing a sense of connection to big family structures and big communal structures over time because it’s just impossible to keep that in a big city environment.

There is something that has happened with COVID-19 that has shown us the hole, the gap in our thinking, we were just going about our days scrolling through making it okay that we accidentally interacted with people, and now the intentionality of that has challenged our system. Maybe people really think about “Who am I connected to? Who are my people?”

 

George Miller: Do you think there’s a mental health cost to that kind of societal change?

Erin Rotich: Whenever we lose something, we usually gain something too. I hate the whole social media argument, because it’s like black and white. We can’t do that anymore. We have social media. We are online. Let’s get over that and figure out how to use it for the best. I love cities, but it is a loss in a city that you cannot depend on people the same way, you might not know your neighbour. There is a mental health cost to that. We’ve seen it in COVID-19 bigger than at any time. We’re all isolated in our homes going: “Who are our communities?” We say these basic things in our resilience activities of “Have you called someone today?”, but it has to be said because otherwise, people don’t! There is something that has happened with COVID-19 that has shown us the hole, the gap in our thinking. We were just going about our days scrolling through making it okay that we accidentally interacted with people, and now the intentionality of that has challenged our system. Maybe people really think about “Who am I connected to? Who are my people?”

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