#EndSARS was trending so I clocked in
I was not familiar with Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), but within minutes of reading about the appalling incidents suffered by many people at the hands of SARS, I became angry.
One of the few memories I have from Nigeria involves a random stop and search with a plainclothes officer. He had an assault rifle slung across his shoulder as he motioned for our car to pull-over to the side of the road. The officer brandished the rifle across our faces and demanded to search our car with no explanation provided. After he finished flexing his muscles for us, we were permitted to carry on with our day as if this encounter never happened. The ease with which he demanded a search, signaled to me that we were neither the first nor last victims subjected to his harassment and abuse of power. Thankfully, this encounter ended with no deaths.
For many Nigerians this is often not the case; a random stop and search might escalate to an arrest, wrongful detainment or death. To live in constant fear of brutality and death at the hands of the people sworn to protect you is to die twice. Out of sheer frustration, Nigerian youth across the world came together in one voice to chant #EndSARS, demanding that our lives mattered.
I was drawn to this movement the same way my identity as a Black woman connected me to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. For days, I remained glued to my phone, eager to stay informed. I clocked in daily, ready to work, sharing, liking, and retweeting with a commitment to sòrò sóké [speak up] and amplify the movement. Each day, I prayed for a cease to the senseless killings. The more momentum the #EndSARS protests gained, the more accounts of SARS brutality resurfaced the internet. Watching videos of members of my communities being beaten and abused inhumanely was devastating.
#EndSARS was the final blow that pushed me over the edge
While I took to the streets and social media to chant #EndSARS in solidarity with Nigerians across the world, it was hard not to feel helpless thousands of kilometers away from home. In an attempt to preserve my mental wellbeing, I tried to stay off social media, yet all that did was make me feel guilty. Guilty, because I had the privilege of being able to log off an app, but the people back home could not simply log off or escape their daily lives; the harassment, abuse and death do not just go away. #Chijioke, #Tina, #Jimoh and so many more lost their lives to these harsh realities.
As I grieved the lives lost at the hands of SARS, I also silently feared for my life, loved ones and the future of my country. How do I know that a visit to Nigeria and run-in with the police would not result in my name also becoming a hashtag? Although I did not know it then, a part of me was also mourning the loss of a place I once called home. Can I still call a place home if I no longer feel safe there? Cycling through feelings of anger, rage, helplessness, guilt and loss was emotionally overwhelming. The tragedy of #EndSARS was the final blow that pushed me over the edge in 2020.
As I narrated both my personal challenges and the distress I experienced as a result of the protest to my personal counsellor, the disconnect between the counsellor and what I was experiencing was glaring. In an attempt to understand my point of view, the counsellor questioned if I had ever been a victim of SARS brutality while living in Nigeria. In all honesty, the counsellor tried their best to offer comfort the way they could, but it fell flat.
They suggested that I absolve myself of feelings of guilt because of my work and contributions to the Black community here in Canada. Although the #EndSARS conversation was one I needed to have, it unfortunately was a conversation I could not properly engage in with my counsellor. In order to have this conversation with my counsellor, I would have had to explain that the Black community in Canada and the Nigerian community are not necessarily synonymous. Doing the equity and advocacy work I love in Canada does not shield me from feeling helpless when it comes to the tragedies in Nigeria.
I would have also had to explain that not having a personal experience with SARS did not absolve me of the anger I felt watching other Nigerians experience these tragedies. Having to explain and rationalize these complex emotions when I had not even processed and understood them myself was difficult. Thankfully, I had a group of friends, who were also Nigerian, and experiencing much of what I was going through. We were all hurting, but still mustered the strength to connect through a group call, creating space for us to collectively express our feelings. We did not have to explain or rationalize our feelings, they were understood as they were. It was a place of solace.
Experiencing tragedy as a collective, like many Nigerians did during the #EndSARS movement in October 2020, is more broadly defined as national trauma. National trauma is seldom discussed outside the context of war and terrorism nor through the lens of citizens who have emigrated from a nation to join the diaspora community. While we recognize our privilege and know that our experiences could never be equated to Nigerians back home who lived through the harsh realities of SARS, many members of the Nigerian diaspora will tell you that the tragedies of the #EndSARS movement still profoundly influenced their lives.
From a mental health perspective, it is important to acknowledge how adverse events occurring in a nation may induce traumatic stress in locals as well as its citizens living abroad. The distress members of the diaspora experience may seem implausible, but through accessibility of instant news over the internet and social media, the emotional effects of national trauma know no bounds. Although the advancement of technology makes it easier for people to unite around causes, it also creates new methods for people to be exposed to traumatic events. With every hashtag, viral video or Instagram live recount of a national crisis, the diaspora communities across the globe are exposed to tragedies that invoke psychological stress.
Traumatic stress and its sequelae have a profound influence on the overall wellbeing of an individual. When health care professionals care for individuals, such as immigrants, experiencing national trauma, a trauma-informed approach is key. Trauma-informed care endorses a practice where care providers acknowledge the signs of trauma and its pervasiveness. Although all care providers may not be privy to the various global crises that may traumatize their patients, they can anticipate the role national crises like #EndSARS may have on the Nigerian-Canadian patient sitting in front of them.
In such settings, the care provider should adopt an attitude of cultural humility. Cultural humility involves continuous reflection on one’s own biases, in order to understand, and be sensitive towards cultural issues that are important to others1. While healthcare professionals may have limited knowledge about the complex cultural identities and lived experiences of their patients, it is still important to consider how intersecting identities of race, ethnicity and nationality could influence a patient’s mental health. Dr. Noshene Ranjbar and her colleagues discuss a clinical encounter model where cultural humility practices in trauma-informed care provide a pathway to empower patients on their journey towards healing2. Mutual learning between the patient and health professional is essential in this process. As care providers learn about their patient’s complex identities, they can help patients discover sources of strength and healing that exist outside of a healthcare facility.
Not all interventions need to be medical. Community plays a huge role in healing. The tragedies of #EndSARS and shared trauma united my Nigerian friends and I in a way that our gathering created the solace each of us needed to express, reflect and process our grief. It is important to recognize the power of healing that lies in our communities. In several instances, these informal community care and healing circles have filled some of the gaps in the healthcare system. However, as healthcare professionals, in order to provide holistic care, it is paramount that we identify ways to integrate community care into formal healthcare. To achieve this, we can examine pre-existing models that have incorporated social care into formal healthcare successfully.
One of such examples is England’s healthcare system, which has formalized prescribing accessible restorative experiences such as tai chi classes and museum trips to individuals suffering from isolation, depression and anxiety. Prescription of these restorative experiences depend on individual needs and the resources available in the local community. Similarly, we can think of unique ways for healthcare providers to prescribe community healing circles to individuals that may be experiencing national trauma. In an attempt to re-imagine a more inclusive and holistic healthcare system, where could community prescriptions fit in?
Due to the rise in global migration, it is important now more than ever, to determine ways to provide adequate trauma-informed mental health care for immigrants. All immigrants are members of one diaspora or another. However, because national trauma is hardly discussed in the context of its effects on diasporans, we often experience a dissonance between the distress we feel as we watch our motherland bleed, and the unspoken message that we should not be as affected because we are far away from home. The lack of validation and under recognition of the impact of national trauma on the wellbeing and mental health of members of the diaspora is a huge disservice and quite frankly harmful.
Whether it is #EndSARS in Nigeria, #AnglophoneCrisis in Cameroon, #CongoIsBleeding, #ShutItAllDown in Namibia, #AmINext in South Africa, #ZimbabweanLivesMatter, or the crisis in Ethiopia, there is no doubt that the struggles of the continent have a ripple effect beyond the borders of the land. As children of the diaspora, we recognize that in many ways, our identities are rooted in our – African – ancestry. This collective identity is what results in the collective vulnerability we experience when our motherland bleeds. However, it is also the identity we can call upon to heal ourselves when #AfricaIsBleeding.
1. Yeager KA, Bauer-Wu S. Cultural humility: Essential foundation for clinical researchers. Appl Nurs Res. 2013;26(4):251-256. doi:10.1016/j.apnr.2013.06.008
2. Ranjbar N, Erb M, Mohammad O, Moreno FA. Trauma-Informed Care and Cultural Humility in the Mental Health Care of People From Minoritized Communities. Focus (Madison). 2020;18(1):8-15. doi:10.1176/appi.focus.20190027