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‘Depression…what we need is more talk therapy, empathy’

By Chukwuma Muanya
26 January 2019   |   4:27 am
She battled depression. She won the battle. She chronicled her experiences in a book, “Dust to Dew.” But Betty Irabor is not satisfied. She is concerned...

Betty Irabor

We need to introduce mental health education in primary health care. Children and teenagers get depressed too. Parents need to watch their children closely to catch any behavioral changes and moods. Parents should not be quick to write off severe mood swings and irrational behaviour as, “Oh it’s that time of the month.” It could be more. When your child becomes reluctant to socialise and locks herself/himself in the room more and suddenly loses interest in what used to be of interest to her/him, start to ask questions.

She battled depression. She won the battle. She chronicled her experiences in a book, “Dust to Dew.” But Betty Irabor is not satisfied. She is concerned for millions of Nigerians facing the same battle and are at their wits end looking for an escape route… maybe suicide.

“Sharing my story on my fight with depression is I being audacious. Hopefully, it will shine a ray of hope to those trapped in that same dark tunnel where I was a prisoner for seven years,” Betty Irabor wrote.

Mrs. Betty Irabor was born on March 25, 1957. She is a philanthropist, writer and columnist. Betty was a freelance writer for ThisDay and Vanguard newspapers. In 2003 she set up inspirational and lifestyle magazine Genevieve became the editor-in-chief. She is a public speaker and founder of Genevieve PinkBall Foundation through which she promotes breast cancer awareness, early detection and treatment.

In 2011, the Association of Professional Women Bankers honoured her as the Most Accomplished Female Publisher in Nigeria.

Betty Irabor is married to Soni Irabor, veteran broadcaster, with two children.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), depression is a common mental illness characterised by persistent sadness and a loss of interest in activities that people normally enjoy, accompanied by an inability to carry out daily activities, for 14 days or longer.

In addition, people with depression normally have several of the following: a loss of energy; a change in appetite; sleeping more or less; anxiety; reduced concentration; indecisiveness; restlessness; feelings of worthlessness, guilt, or hopelessness; and thoughts of self-harm or suicide. Depression is the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide.

According to the latest estimates from the WHO, more than 600 million people are now living with depression and lack of support for people with mental disorders, coupled with a fear of stigma, prevent many from accessing the treatment they need to live healthy, productive lives.

A study by the World Bank published February 2018 revealed that 22 per cent of Nigerians, on average, are chronically depressed. Yet another study published in October 2018 estimated that up to 60 million Nigerians are at risk of suffering from depression.

WHO has identified strong links between depression and other non-communicable disorders and diseases. Depression increases the risk of substance use disorders and diseases such as diabetes and heart disease; the opposite is also true, meaning that people with these other conditions have a higher risk of depression.

Little wonder Betty Irabor is not satisfied with just the release of Dust and Dew. She wants to do more to raise awareness on mental health issues especially depression. “In spite of all the victory dance of a successful book release I found my self hungry for something more and in my typical way of feeling a sense of trepidation before any new project I decided ‘what do I have to lose anyways?’” Betty said.

She established the Dew Collection for mental health awareness. Betty Irabor took mental health awareness to the runway as she launched her clothing line, Dew Collection four months after the release of her book.

“I believe one of our biggest strengths come from turning our travails into triumphs by sharing our stories to save others. We should never allow our pains to go to waste by not saving others from the same fate. Hopefully, as we all feel liberated enough to talk about our battles with mental health we unveil the secrecy surrounding it and then fight the stigma,” she added.

Betty Irabor in this online interview with The Guardian provided answers to some begging questions on mental health:
Situation of mental health… depression in Nigeria

First off, let me say that I don’t think we truly have valid statistics of Nigerians battling with mental health. What we have are mere conjectures because until recently, mental health was a hush-hush sickness. No one admitted openly that it would be nice to have an actual figure to work with and not all the figures being bandied about.

Thanks to social media we are all more aware of the increase in suicide ideations and rate of suicide and it is alarming. Suicide has become a trend! Nigeria has gone from being a land with the happiest people in the world to being the poverty capital and the country with the most depressed people in Africa. We need to fix this!

My book Dust to Dew is a memoire. It is my own personal account of a head on collision with depression and I am happy the book is so relatable. I hope it sets many free. Depression is slavery, it takes away your freedom… freedom to live and be the best of you.

I don’t know exactly what’s next after the book but I know that I would like to help others get out of the shackles of mental health through conversations and in some other capacity. Not sure yet what God intends to do with me in that regards.

Poor mental health services
Indeed, I felt so let down by the health care system. I felt like a lab rat every time I saw a psychiatrist and got loaded with anti-depressants. We need Psychiatrists with an ability to empathize. Not the ones who are programmed to merely hand you a prescription as soon you start telling them that you feel depressed or the ones who tell you are too pretty to be depressed! We need to try more of talk therapy? I need my therapist to listen to me and understand the pain I cannot effectively describe. I want to be assured that I am not mad and that I am merely sick and not alone. I don’t want a therapist who will make an unguarded statement like “ I saw you in the papers and told my wife, this lady looks depressed?” I don’t want you to look at me with pity when I walk into your clinic; I already feel self-pity that I am in a mental health facility.

I only began to come out of depression when I met therapists who didn’t see me as just another psychiatric patient and took time to HEAR ME unburden my tired soul without first handing me more anti depressants; some of which made me even more suicidal.

What we need is education and more education on mental health and a mindset re-orientation. Psychiatrists need to be brought up to speed about modern ways of dealing with mental health issues. Our facilities need to be upgraded and made affordable. How many people can afford to see a psychiatrist even if it is Yaba Neuro-psychiatry Hospital, Lagos when they have to pay N180,000 for admission? I recently helped a family sort out their child because they could not afford the fee. We need devoted and committed psychiatric nurses and doctors. But they can’t be committed if they have to go on strikes to demand better remuneration. We need to upgrade Aro Neuropsychiatry Hospital in Abeokuta, Ogun State, Yaba and all other Neuro Psychiatric hospitals and continually train the personnel. Empathy is a seven-letter word but its healing impact is underrated.

The impact of Dust to Dew in battling depression
The response has made me feel less vulnerable. I feel it was worth my coming out and sharing something so private and personal although some people still try to make me feel guilty about opening up as I did. Such people are the reasons many will never open up and say I am depressed! Someone actually told me that I might not get a board/political appointment because of my book. Sad, that’s what we understand about mental health. Very myopic! I am happy I wrote Dust to Dew and I am happier that is getting good reviews and rating. We were listed among 20 Best Books of 2018 by Channels TV book Club and Daily Trust 15 best books of 2018.

Pet project on mental health
I am taking my time. I believe purpose will find me. No Pet project in the works. I am happy to be of service anyhow and in any way I can. I am not about to rush into anything yet. My book is out there impacting lives and that’s a good start.

Plans for legislation for mental health
Yes, I am hopping to join a lobby group to canvass for a Bill on mental health

Willing to help others battling depression
I am assisting many people understand what they are going through and pointing them in the right direction. I am passionate about helping others get out of depression as a survivor myself. I find that people with depression can relate to me because I used to be like them.

Lifestyle impact on mental health
We have to be very intentional about our lifestyles; the things we allow into our body. It’s garbage in garbage out and garbage health. I went to a health resort during my down time and learnt a lot about healthy eating habits. Part of my recovery was pegged on healthy eating habits, occasional detox, no alcohol, less sugar, more water, more greens and more sleep. Sleep is so badly underrated. When you have suffered from chronic insomnia as I have then you appreciate that getting your beauty sleep is more than an idiomatic expression.

I have always been big on exercise but I had to step up my gym game. I walk, swim and go to dance classes. I found that anytime I was down and I managed to exercise I felt happy as if someone injected me with joy. Exercise should not be something we do for a reason like weight loss it has to become a lifestyle. I used to feel so self-conscious at the gym because people looked at me and wondered why I was working out because I was slim. Truth is, being slim is one thing, being healthy is another. I would advise that we all find time for more outdoor living, nature is beautiful but we don’t explore it enough.

Most of our social life is limited to Owambes! We need to go for annual diagnostic health checks and know our health status… even machines get serviced!!

Advice for the afflicted
Listen, there’s no shame in admitting that you’re not okay. It’s Okay not to be okay. If you don’t feel any sense of shame when you go to see a doctor when you have malaria or other life threatening illness why are you ashamed to admit that you’re going through mental health sickness? Mental health sickness is treatable; just make sure you speak and ask for help. There’s no need to hide from the world. Everyone has a battle they are fighting.

Recommendations on how best to address mental health issues
We need to introduce mental health education in primary health care. Children and teenagers get depressed too. Parents need to watch their children closely to catch any behavioral changes and moods. Parents should not be quick to write off severe mood swings and irrational behaviour as, “Oh it’s that time of the month.” It could be more. When your child becomes reluctant to socialize and locks herself/himself in the room more and suddenly loses interest in what used to be of interest to her/him start to ask questions.

Stigmatisation and mental health
We can tackle the stigma associated with mental health by speaking out against it, we must educate society about mental health and encourage patients to speak out and seek help. We need to get our communities to throw more light on mental Health with a view to reducing the stigma. People stigmatise what they do not understand so we need to educate the society more. When we all understand that mental health does not equate Madness the way Africans see it, then there will be less stigma. For as long as the Stigma exists, patients with mental health challenges will continue to hide and refuse to seek help.

I am happy though that more and more public figures/celebrities are talking about their mental health struggles online regardless of stigma. It’s a healthy way to keep the conversation going.

Finally, as I wrote in my book… diagnosis and treatments of depression have to include more of talk therapy and empathy than hasty prescriptions of antidepressants.

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