A community of optimists hosted by Melinda French Gates

Rising leaders: Sam Talam, youth mental health champion

4 min
Illustration of Sam Talam
Illustration by Petra Eriksson
It's often said that change starts small. But the truth is, it also starts young. This is the first in a series of conversations with young people who are leading the way and taking action to create the futures they want to see.
Sam Talam is the founder and CEO of Amazing Minds Africa, an organization in Kenya that provides mental health support to young people and promotes mental health awareness at universities. We recently spoke with Sam about what inspired him to become a champion for youth mental health, bridging the gap between systems and individuals, and the dangers of staying inside your comfort zone.

Some people accept the way things are. Others see potential for incremental change. Others, like you, see the potential for true disruption. Describe the moment when you realized you were a disruptor.

When I started at university in 2014, initially it was a difficult transition for me, psychologically and socially. I realized how difficult it is to become yourself in a world that is trying to make you something else. A year later, my friend Collins died by suicide and left a note that read, “The devil had overcome my faith.” I was devastated, and eventually realized that something was wrong with how we addressed mental health problems amongst young people.

We put so much emphasis at the system levels—pressure to get into a good school, get good grades, get a good job—and very little at the individual or group levels, which is where life actually happens. Also, as I followed the national conversation around mental health, I realized that if we don’t act, we’ll continue to lose our young people.
I realized it was time for action.
After many conversations with my friends and peers and on social media that helped crystallize my vision, I realized it was time for action. After pulling together a few colleagues and classmates and reaching out to the university as a potential partner, I realized we could disrupt things and make university life better for many people.
Tell us about the world you're creating. How is it different from the world as we know it today?

At the organization I founded, Amazing Minds Africa, we are on a mission to create a world where all young people have optimum mental wellbeing and quality of life. A world where young people have access to the knowledge and support they need to be and become whatever they value and have reason to value, and to feel a sense of true belonging. A world where our collective gains depend on diversity, collaboration, and collective wisdom, rather than competition. And a world without judgment, because if you judge people, you have no time to love them. Most importantly, we are creating a dynamic world that cares for the vulnerable, with flexible systems that can learn, grow, and change as needed.

We are also creating a world where leaders of character can thrive. A world where there is incentive enough to do what is right and not what is easy. While pockets of this exist, we deeply lack the values to drive such change, and that is why we are also creating systems that uphold the values of leadership, empathy, honesty, excellence, teamwork, and entrepreneurial spirit.
Watch: Cities Rise video on mental health
citiesRISE: an Introduction
In 2017, I was connected to citiesRISE and through that relationship, I applied for and won the Youth Challenge Award that significantly helped us build our systems and gave us the ability to organize meaningfully and create this new world.
What do young people know that the rest of the world needs to pay attention to?

Young people know that systems can be flexible. Young people know that reality is changing fast, and we need to adapt to it. Young people know that when we are young, we take risks often, and the older we get, the more comfortable we become, stuck in routine and slower to grow. We know, too, that a comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there. We also know that entrepreneurship and technology led by young people is the answer to building the next generation of systems and solutions.
There are no passengers on spaceship Earth. We are all crew!
Despite this understanding, youth often lack the resilience, support and backing they need to create the change they envision. This is sometimes due in part to the priorities of established systems around the world and older people’s ignorance of youth potential, leading to small investment that never materializes to meaningful transformation. Youth need to be engaged as equal partners in the transformation journey, as there are no passengers on spaceship Earth. We are all crew!