2021 Mandela Washington Fellow Rahel Lemma Yemanaberhan grew up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Her father instilled in her empathy and a sense of responsibility for her community while taking her on trips across Ethiopia. Through her travels, she learned to be appreciative of the educational opportunities available to her and the responsibility of serving her community.
Rahel started her career journey as a lab researcher but later found that it did not ignite her passions. She discovered her true calling while working as a lab technician in Guinea during the West African Ebola virus epidemic. While in Guinea, Rahel saw the impact public health made on people daily. Something inside of her clicked, and she knew she wanted to pursue public health full time.
“I felt that coming from a country that didn’t have access to [many] health facilities or doctors, that it’s really important to work at the community level and focus on prevention,” said Rahel.
Disinformation in Africa Surrounding Public Health
Rahel experienced many instances of disinformation and misinformation throughout her career. Disinformation is created and spread intentionally to manipulate an audience. Misinformation is unintentional and not created to cause harm. Some of the false claims she has seen in Africa surrounding public health include the following:
Mental Health Stigmas and Misinformation Around Suicide in Africa
In some African countries, people do not recognize mental health as a problem and believe it is a result of witchcraft, evil spirits, or curses. One topic of mental health that Rahel is particularly interested in addressing is suicide. Many do not acknowledge suicides because they believe those who die by suicide disqualify themselves from going to heaven. As a result, people avoid talking about suicide, and those suffering from suicidal thoughts do not get the help they need.
How Social Media is Spreading Misinformation Surrounding COVID-19
There has been an abundance of misinformation around the COVID-19 vaccine in Africa due to false information spread through social media. Some social media misinformation narratives about the vaccine say part of the needle gets left behind or that a microchip is implanted. Despite governmental information campaigns to share the facts surrounding the benefits of vaccines, many Africans still believe the false narratives.
A public health professional showed a false video to Rahel where the needle was “left inside the body” after an injection of the COVID-19 vaccine. She mollified the misinformation by teaching her colleague about how the injections are performed.
How Rahel Leads the Fight Against Disinformation to Tell the Truth about Mental Health
After finishing her term in Guinea, Rahel decided to further her education in public health. She has a master’s degree in control of infectious diseases and worked with the Ethiopian Public Health Institute on secondment from WHO Ethiopia as a public health specialist. At the Public Health Institute, Rahel led an initiative to build emergency mental health and psychosocial support services for internally displaced persons after Ethiopia experienced a large population displacement due to drought and conflict. Many people experienced a lot of mental health trauma after the conflict, including anxiety and depression. It was during this time that she decided to be an advocate for mental health awareness in Africa.
She continues inviting others to speak out against misinformation and disinformation by working with communities on mental health education.
“We need to empower communities to be able to tell apart what’s true and what’s not. If we can work with communities to help them identify what’s true, communities can reclaim their power,” said Rahel.
To learn more about Rahel’s mission to provide education about mental health, visit her LinkedIn account.
To learn more about disinformation and media literacy, visit the YALIChecks page.