Our concept of health and wellness has always been based on physical health. From an African viewpoint, discussions on this topic have been seen as taboo in our societies. The fear of the forbidden word “mental health” or “mental illness” reflects our general attitudes as many people choose not to seek help out of shame, a form of societal control. The impact of this silent epidemic of mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and high addiction as well as suicide rates is evident, as shown in the struggles of many households across the continent. Withstanding, I applaud advocates and activists in Nigeria for promoting awareness and interventions in relation to this prevailing issue. However, there still is a long way to go for a better future.
Delving into this topic served as a form of self-reflection as I went on a journey of growth into what mental health meant. Growing up in Nigeria, where mental illness is attributed to supernatural origins, really affected my understanding of this concept. I had always believed that mental illnesses resulted from possession by evil spirits, curses, or even the bewitching of others by people with supernatural powers. I was, to some degree, driven by fear but still pondering the unwillingness of others to provide help as mental illness plagued the streets. The lack of accessibility to professional mental health care has made people suffer in silence or look for other options they could find. For instance, recalling my experience in Nigeria, I remember that thousands of people would turn to “traditional options” with promises from self-proclaimed healers in hopes of change. These methods used by these healers would involve chaining people to trees while whipping or praying on them. Instead of receiving medical treatment, most people are placed under this inhumane care.
The Revolutionary Tale of Hauwa Ojeifo
This made me wonder about the future of mental health in Nigeria and Africa as a whole. With this curiosity, I was encouraged to look at the steps and interventions we were taking to provide sustainable mental health care. The exploration led me to an astonishing activist who uses her power of storytelling to inspire and support those in need of mental health services. Hauwa Ojeifo’s story is truly captivating, as she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. The diagnosis changed her life, as she faced hardships when Nigeria’s healthcare system failed to provide mental health services. This led her to start a blog as a platform where she talks about her experiences.
Despite being told by a psychiatrist that she needed to be admitted, Hauwa Ojeifo decided that she needed to work toward amplifying the voice of mental health in Nigeria, Africa, and the world in general. She created a platform called “SheWritesWomen” which served as a medium for telling her stories and building a community. It provided women with a platform to share their struggles as they battled with mental health issues.
In her own words, “Women with mental health conditions like myself have something to say and we are being heard. It’s empowering!”Hauwa Ojeifo
The impeccable work of Hauwa Ojeifo’s organization “SheWriteWomen” reflects that it was founded on the principles of love, hope, kindness, and support for women and people with mental illness. The success of this movement has led to innovative interventions such as the launch of the first 24/7 mental health helpline with calls being received from all over the globe to provide better understanding and support to people with mental illness. In addition, she has established a women-led support group that oversaw the visitations of people living with mental illness. The advocacy alone of this remarkable woman shows the future is clear for Africa in curbing this silent but deadly issue of mental health stigmatization.
The exemplary work of Hauwa Ojeifo further shows that the tide for mental health is slowly turning. The mindset on mental health is clearly shifting as the new generation makes significant changes pertaining to encouraging and advocating for mental health awareness and interventions. As Michelle Obama stated, “Seeking mental health is not a sign of weakness but rather that of strength, and we must ensure that our people get the treatment they need”. Achieving the overall well-being of African communities should be prioritized and discussed.