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Tackling mental health issues during pandemic

In this exclusive interview with Psychologist/Founder Sunshine Series Mind Wellness, Aisha Bubah by our Senior Reporter, Adeniyi Bakare, she talks about her passion, providing free Mental Health services to Nigerians irrespective of tribe, religion, and culture through psychotherapy, psychological first aid, mental health training, and consultations.

Excerpts:

As a Psychologist by training, What is Mental Health to a lay man?

A: Mental health is basically the state of your mind and all that concerns it. This can be attributed to your emotions, mood, thought pattern, behavior, how you relate with others, your level of productivity, and your ability to cope with life stressors.

How do you respond to the rise in mental health amidst COVID-19 pandemic?

A: It has become quite evident that COVID-19 significantly impacts mental health. This prompted the creating and implementation of The Mind Wheel Project, which offers free counseling to persons struggling with their mental health as a result of the pandemic. Some of the other activities of the Mind wheel project include research on the impact of COVID-19 on mental health, capacity building for mental health workers, and dissemination of psychoeducational materials on mental wellbeing.

What is the brain behind “The Mind Wheel Project”?

A: The Mind Wheel project started when we noticed a hike in conversations on mental distress during the lockdown period in the country. We decided to look at ways we can provide psychosocial support to Nigerians with our limited resources. We made a call for volunteer counselors, who mostly were Lay counselors and Psychological first aiders we trained in the past. That was how the Mind Wheel Project started offering free virtual counseling sessions, this gradually included creating and disseminating digital educational materials of mental wellbeing, conducting surveys on the impact of COVID-19 on mental health. Through the support of The Federal Ministry of Special Duties and Intergovernmental Affairs and The Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital economy, we have set up the first mental health helpline on the national emergency line 112, which is currently active in the FCT and working to expand to other states.

What can Nigerians do to prevent mental illness or mental disorder in a hopeless situation?

A: Firstly, mental illness is not always preventable. Many factors contribute to developing a mental illness like genetics, life stressors, negative experiences, physical health conditions, etc. However, what we can do to ensure that our mental health doesn’t deteriorate, this will involve you staying educated about what mental health is, what can possibly affect your mental health and how. This will help you notice any early warning signs of mental illness and seek help early. Also, being conscious of any changes in the people around us, because sometimes, a person going through mental distress may not always recognize the signs early, but if anyone does, they can help them seek support early. Also, take care of your mental health, protect it against anything that upsets your balance, do the things you enjoy doing, surround yourself with positive people, learn positive skills to manage stress, maintain a good work-life balance.

How responsive and efficient is your psychosocial support?

A: With the 112 mental health helpline, it runs 24/7. Once you call, you will be linked to the immediately available counsellor. This is however currently only active in the FCT. For those outside the FCT, you can manually book a free session by sending a message to us via themindwheel@gmail.com or 0704 551 4589.

So far, we have reached over 5,000 beneficiaries through free counselling, dissemination of educational materials through our psychosocial support programme.

What are your challenges and how are you addressing them?

A: Our major challenge on this project is awareness and publicity. We need more Nigerians to be aware of these services and access them. This project is design to cater for especially underserved populations in terms of access to quality mental healthcare. We are addressing this by putting ads on social media, sharing flyers about the service at hospitals, schools and religious centres. However, we need more publicity from traditional media like TV, Radio, newspapers.

We also are looking at expanding to other states in the country and set up the 112 mental health helplines as it is currently in the FCT. For this, we will require the funding necessary to cover the costs involved in running it.

As a Psychologist, suicide should never be an option for depression. What will be your advice to Nigerians going through depression and psychological trauma?

A: To seek help. Going through any form of mental health challenge, does not make you different or abnormal. Every human has a mental health and we all experience struggles with it at different times in our lives. There should be no shame or stigma in seeking mental health support. Also notice what triggers any form of psychological trauma for you and work towards avoiding them or managing them. Speak up when you feel like there is no hope. Having a strong support system is a major booster for anyone struggling with their mental health.

You recently launched the first-ever toll-free line 112 supported by the Ministry of Special Duties and Intergovernmental Affairs, offering psychological first aid to Nigerians by dialing 112. How were you able to achieve this?

A: Like I earlier mentioned, The Mind wheel project started by offering free sessions through internet calls. However, this limits the access of persons who are not connected to the internet. This is where The Federal Ministry of Special duties and Intergovernmental Affairs and The Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital economy came in, to support the expansion of the project and set up a toll free line that more Nigerians with access to mobile phones can call without being charged for internet or call credit.

Has your organization been able to train others in the area of mental health and how many people have you trained and empowered?

A: Yes, we have always been involved in training Lay counsellors and Psychological first aiders, of which we have trained over 50 people. We also offer advanced mental health trainings for psychologists, medical workers, humanitarian aid workers, refugee camp teachers. So far, we have trained over 200 persons in different areas. Some of the trainings involve psychosocial skills in working with victims of sexual violence, working with children and families affected by conflict, basic counselling skills, work-life balance and many more.

Are there other areas of interest, you are looking at in future?

A: Yes, we are looking at working more with children who are victims of violent extremism and conflict, to build their resilience and a positive outlook towards life. This will involve psychosocial activities that match their development levels to that of their peers. We are also looking at working towards psychosocial interventions in curbing the use of drugs by young people and to support their recovery. We are currently working on a project that provides therapy to women and girls who have experienced any form of gender-based violence. We are also exploring other services that will provide a holistic approach to mental wellbeing for all members of the society, for all age groups too.           

What is your final advice to Nigerians?

A: I want to encourage Nigerians to speak up more about their mental health and seek support when they need it. We need to also speak up against the stigma, shaming, and silent culture on matters related to mental health. For our policymakers, I will encourage that more funding is allocated to mental health programs. A mentally healthy society is likely to thrive better. We need policies in all sectors of society like schools, workplaces, etc., that prioritize mental health.

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