Scholar Spotlight - Collins Mokua

Columbia University Laidlaw Scholar Collins on his research into mental health in Kenya, how he is enacting ethical leadership in real life, and building an equitable, sustainable, and just future.

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Collins Mokua, a Laidlaw Scholar at the Columbia University, on his research into mental health in Kenya, how he is enacting ethical leadership in real life, and building an equitable, sustainable, and just future.

Mental health is the leading cause of disability worldwide and Africa bears a great burden of disease as a consequence. The majority of Kenyans live in rural areas, yet the majority of health facilities are in urban areas. The use of health care services is inequitable, as hospital services are increasingly pro-rich. As a result of this disparity in access to care, poor and disadvantaged communities suffer more from common mental disorders and their consequences. My research focuses on assessing public records and data to understand the state of mental health care in Kenya, with the aim of informing recommendations and efforts to build a better mental health care framework.

There exists a severe shortage of mental health facilities and health professionals in Kenya. Public psychiatric patients are attended by the 600-bed Mathari psychiatric hospital in Nairobi and seven provincial and six district hospitals with about 20 beds each across the country (1). The prevalence of depressive disorders is 4.4%, and 3.1% for anxiety disorders, and these are attributed to 8.3% and 2.9% of total Years Lost due to Disability (YLD) respectively (2). Yet, mental health only accounts for less than 1% of the health budget (1).

It is clear that Kenya, and other Low- and Middle-income Countries (LMICs), have comparable, if not worse, prevalence and incidence of mental illness but a fraction of the resources. In Kenya, there are strong competing priorities, such as infectious disease, malnutrition, unsafe drinking water, malaria, and increasing rates of chronic diseases. Focus on psychosis has caused signs of depression of anxiety to not be recognized as mental illness. Non-profit organizations are the most promising stakeholders making moves to improve mental health in Kenya and many other LMICs. Data that accurately portrays the burden of disease attributed to mental illness is paramount in leveraging stakeholders, such as government and community leaders, to mobilize resources and address the need for mental health care.

Standing in front of the Africa Mental Health Research and Training Foundation office in Nairobi, Kenya.

Where did your passion for this research originate?

My mother was a Biology and Chemistry teacher when I was a young boy living in Kenya. I can trace my curiosity and love for science back to those days when I would fire a hundred and one questions at her. I would ask, “What is DNA?” before I could even understand what the answer really meant. At that time, the thrilling element in science that always fascinated me was that I was learning about my body - I would imagine DNA swirling around in my arm. This curiosity became more focused in high school where I came across the field of psychology. I took an introductory course to psychology that made me fall in love with the brain, learning about how and why we think and feel the way we do captivates me to no end. 

Mental health came to the forefront of my research interests after my freshman year in college. It was my first time in NYC and my first time in a real winter for months; I had never experienced seasonal depression like I did that winter. As I sought out more information and reflected on my personal experience, my appreciation for how mental illness is often a great barrier to a lot of people's success increased. Learning more about the risk factors, I could not help but think about my countrymen in Kenya. That is what motivated me to begin research in understanding the prevalence and incidence of mental illness in Kenya with the mission that one day our nation will be well equipped to provide communities with resources to address the adverse impact of mental illness.

Standing at the campus of Columbia University in New York City.

Applying ethical leadership in real life 

The actions of an individual speak to their character. Therefore, a leader is defined by their actions. A good leader is amiable, exudes authority while being humble, understands the social and political climate around them, the cultures they interact with, and respects the multiplicity of perspectives held by different people. This requires an acute sense of self-awareness, attention to detail and humility. A leader must listen more than they speak, not only because they must be informed and hear the opinions of others, but also because they must pick their words with care. 

In the spirit of these values, I have been a part of two initiatives that I am very proud to see growing. The Columbia University Black Pre-professional Society is an organisation that was founded in my sophomore year of undergrad by 5 women to serve as a bridge between Black students at the College and postgraduate opportunities. I joined the organisation in its founding days as the first pre-medical representative and I am currently the second Chief Financial Officer. Our work is near and dear to my heart and it has brought me great fulfillment to see students leverage our resources to be able to secure internships and full time offers after graduation.

I am also a manager of SustainHope Inc, a non-profit organization registered in Dallas, Texas that supports young girls from all over Kenya to attend secondary school. Working with them over the past three years, we have been able to onboard nine girls, covering all tuition costs to attend secondary school. Locally in Texas, I have also helped to organise mentorship events aimed at informing our immediate community about the path to undergraduate education. This mission resonates greatly with me because I know the power of education in liberating the individual and the society, and this impact is greatly multiplied when we educate girls.

Top leadership tips

⚡️ Listen actively and attentively
⚡️ Know the your own strengths and the strengths of your team
⚡️ Prioritize service and humility
⚡️ Build strong relationships, especially with the people working with you
⚡️ Be informed and do your research

What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?

The Laidlaw Foundation has allowed me to grow into my Ambition, Bravery, Curiosity, and Determination by empowering me to explore interests that otherwise would not be possible. This means that my competency not only as a global citizen but also as a global leader has been greatly bolstered. This coupled with the 13 Columbia Core competencies places me in the unique position to impact change in my immediate communities and those around the world. To be a Laidlaw Scholar is to be on the forefront of intentional actions for the betterment of society.

Meeting with Dean James Valentini, Susanna Kempe and fellow scholars at Columbia University.

Which particular leaders inspire you the most and why?

Recently I came to learn about the story of Dr. Twesigye Jackson Kaguri, founder of the Nyaka AIDS Foundation in Uganda. He overcame seemingly insurmountable odds from the village of Nyakagyezi, Uganda to make it to Columbia University in NYC where he studied human rights advocacy. The reason that I hail his story among the leaders that inspire me is what came next. Dr. Kaguri, after making it out of Uganda to study in NYC, returned back to Uganda following his successful completion of his studies and established the Nyaka AIDS Foundation to support children to attain primary and secondary education for free while simultaneously sensitizing the communities to HIV/AIDS.

Dr. Kaguri, and many other leaders like him, possess the qualities that I aspire to cultivate as a growing leader. The humility to be able to reach back to and aid those less fortunate than myself, a strong sense of purpose and a vision to create a better life for others, and the follow through to execute ideas. 

Describe a scene from the future you are striving to create:

Kenya is a nation of magnificent natural beauty, both in landscapes and the people. It is my greatest desire that I live to witness our country efficiently tap into the richness that lies within us to support an equitable, sustainable, and just standard of living for our people. In my line of work, I hope to successfully bridge the technology and information gap between our great nation and the developed world in the realm of Neurology. To see a nation that is adequately equipped to produce its own neurosurgeons and also put them to work in their respective communities. It has never been that Africa does not have or cannot do, and breaking down this narrative will be my life’s work. I want a future of a self-sufficient motherland.


Quick-fire Questions

📺 Currently binging: Love Island 

Love Island 2020 - News, line-up, gossip and updates - Mirror Online

🎵 My quarantine anthem: Enjoy Yourself by Pop Smoke and Burna Boy

Music] Pop Smoke Ft. Burna Boy - Enjoy Yourself (Remix) » Naijaloaded

📚 My top book recommendation: How to Think Like a Monk by Jay Shetty 

Think Like a Monk: Train Your Mind for Peace and Purpose Every Day by Jay  Shetty

🎧 Podcast obsession: The Read by Kid Fury and Crissle and The Daily by NYT

The Read | Listen via Stitcher for PodcastsThe Daily | Listen via Stitcher for Podcasts

🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: Going shopping with my little brother, we got matching hoodies!


Collins is a Laidlaw Undergraduate Research and Leadership Scholar at Columbia University. The programme uniquely funds both undergraduate research and leadership development, and aims to develop a new generation of leaders who are skilled researchers, embrace data-based decision making, and believe it is a moral imperative to lead with integrity. 

Find out more about the Laidlaw Undergraduate Research and Leadership Scholarship.

Support the mission championed by SustainHope Inc.

Connect with Collins on LinkedIn and Instagram

Nikol Chen (she/her)

Marketing & Design, Laidlaw Foundation

Hello! My name is Nikol and I look after the Laidlaw Scholars Network. I am originally from Kazakhstan and I studied Human Sciences at UCL. My final research explored the potential effects of design on patient wellbeing in hospitals, and I also took modules such as Ethnographic Documentary Filmmaking, Anthropology of the Built Environment, Art in the Public Sphere, and other less interesting-sounding things :) Drop me a line at nikol.chen@laidlawfoundation.com if you have any questions about the Network or just fancy a chat. Alternatively, you can use the teal chat bubble in the right bottom corner of your screen and I'll reply ASAP!

1 Comments

Go to the profile of Collins Mokua
Collins Mokua 6 days ago

Thank you for the opportunity, it is an honor to be featured in this series.