National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)

Community Keepers 

For their project to enhance resilience and promote mental health


It is a victory, however small, when a distressed child makes a pact with their therapist that they will not take their own life this month, when yesterday they would only commit to this week.

An anti-suicide contract sounds extreme and graphic, but that is the level of distress many South African children find themselves in, says Gerrit Laning. He is the CEO of Community Keepers (CK), a non-profit organisation that creates safe spaces in schools in the Western Cape, reaching over 30 000 learners each year.

He says many kids are living in survival-mode, meaning they’re carrying trauma that triggers a near constant fight-flight-or-freeze response that prevents learning. “This is a scientific and neurological fact. Their higher brain function has been bypassed,” says Laning. 

”And sadly, that’s where we get the narrative that says kids from underserved communities or from low income communities are stupid or that they are slow, or that they are lazy — all of those are untrue.”

Unfortunately, mental health services are generally more accessible in the private sector or to well-resourced people who can pay for it, says Laning. The innovation behind CK is that by being physically present at schools, children in need have immediate access to services that can help prevent or treat mental health crises.

“When a child knocks at the door, they should be able to access our service immediately or as soon as possible. That’s one of the things that we hold very, very dearly,” says Laning. “We are serving a range of needs, not just from a reactive perspective, but also from a preventative or an early-intervention perspective.”

He says that when CK staff manage to nurture an “I can” attitude to life, the children are better able to transcend their physical circumstances and reach their full potential. The staff are a blend of professional mental health workers, supported by younger community members trained as Mental Health First Aiders.

Their work and learnings also feed back into the academic knowledge system through research collaborations with the University of Stellenbosch and the University of Cape Town. 

Together they’ve produced many peer-reviewed publications, including several on their successful ‘Four Steps to My Future’ group-work intervention, which helps reduce anxiety in children.

Community Keepers won the NGO Award for their contribution, including technology transfer and education and training activities over the last 5 to 10 years. — ScienceLink

Read the special Mail & Guardian supplement about all the NSTF-South32 Award winners.

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