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‘Most Nigerians are dealing with undiagnosed trauma that affects their everyday life’

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Alabi-Macfoy

Mudrakat Alabi-Macfoy is a legal professional providing broad-based experiences in programme development and implementation, grants management, data analysis, leadership and building/mobilising advocacy coalitions. In this interview with SHAKIRAH ADUNOLA, she spoke on the need for governments at all levels, as well as corporate organisations, to set aside funds to support the mental health of workers; dealing with undiagnosed trauma and likely signs of a mental health breakdown amongst other issues.

What informed your journey into the non-profit sector?
I was disenchanted with the way law is practiced in Nigeria due to the slow and inefficient ways of the legal system and litigations; it didn’t make me happy or fulfilled in my role as a lawyer. I felt like I needed to do something more fulfilling, so I branched into the non-profit sector and development space to create more impact.

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My initial goal was to be a judge and help people by being part of the judiciary, but that did not work out. I figured that I could change my career path and the goal could still remain the same, which is to help people. I started working in the non-profit space in 2018 and since then, I have been working on projects to develop social justice, community and ensure sustained impact in the community.

How long has this passion for social activism been in you?
This is something that has been part of me since I was a teenager. I first started volunteering when I was 18 years old and have volunteered in different ways since then. I’m an active volunteer in cleaning up Lagos coastlines and saving our marine water from plastic pollution. Lagos is drowning under a serious plastic pollution crisis; our waste management is poor and as a result, the effect it has on the environment is detrimental.

I am an advocate for sustaining and ensuring that we are custodians of the earth and treat it well so it can serve the coming generation. I head a 75-man volunteer squad for such endeavours where we need to clean up any part of the Lagos coastline. I also volunteer as a mental health advocate because obviously, the stigma attached to mental health in this part of the world is still huge and needs to stop. My drive to help people has always been part of me.

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What have you done in terms of assisting people, especially during these difficult times?
I undertook a project when the pandemic first hit Nigeria last year, which was very dear to me. The organisation I was working with at the time, Tahara Collective, provided relief packages for the poor, which contained dry foods, sanitizers, soaps and other essentials. Through this, we were able to reach over 10,000 beneficiaries.

Recently, I played a major role as head of charity at Yashood. We came across a woman in Jalingo, who is caring for 24 orphans in a 2-bedroom flat in Sintali community, Jalingo and unfortunately, the landlord issued her quit notice. As part of our Ramadan campaign, we raised funds to complete a 6-bedroom building where the children can move into and have a better quality of life.

Which area of mental health are you focused on?
I volunteer with an international organisation, Africa Mental Health Matters and I am the head of the social enterprise there. We have a broad range of experience-based solutions and this revolves around creating awareness, holding workshops and seminars. For instance, we have a programme where we go into the corporate world and encourage them to have mental health days. We encourage employees to take time out to relax and take time out to understand how anxiety and working in a fast-paced environment could be detrimental to their mental health. We also explain to them how they can imbibe lifestyle changes that would help reduce their blood pressure, anxiety and general levels of stress.

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It takes a level of understanding and communication to be able to reach out to people, especially at the grassroots to help them realise that overthinking raises one’s blood pressure. An average Nigerian might not fully understand the consequences of poor mental health, but this is what we are trying to push. We want them to know that sometimes you feel down and it is not necessarily tied to money, it’s not necessarily tied to whether you have eaten or not; it might just be some chemical imbalances.

I remember when I had a mental health intervention for people of Ita Faaji, where a building collapsed a few years ago; we engaged parents of the bereaved. We educated them on how they could handle their loss; it was difficult because a lot of them were repulsed to have us there.

How would you say mental issues affect productivity, especially among poorer people?
I will go back to class stratification as it has a key role to play in how we reach out to average Nigerians. Most people within my age bracket would assume that many people are aware of mental health challenges, however, they are looking at it from their level; they are not thinking about poorer people.

How people de-stress is up to them; some people take a walk as part of the ways to de-stress, but there are also unproductive ways to de-stress like taking drugs and alcohol. Some people that choose these unproductive ways are educated and exposed, but yet, they choose these unproductive ways that will be detrimental to their mental health.

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One out of four Nigerians suffer from mental health issues and about 50 million people are suffering from various kinds of mental illnesses according to the World Health Organization (WHO). However, despite this alarming figure, there are only eight federal neuropsychiatric hospitals in Nigeria.

Is there any research that shows how the relationship between superiors and subordinates affect mental health in corporate and political environments?
There are different types of mental health issue disorders and challenges. Most Nigerians have grown up in this environment where we are told that we should be strong; don’t cry and behave smart. We are not given time to process the things that are happening to us. We think that as long as you have food and a roof over your head, you should be grateful, but that is not the case.

There is something called trauma, which often manifests in a strange way. Trauma is the mental state you come into when you have suffered something detrimental like a life event, divorce, death, a scary experience, accident or something along those lines. Trauma can even come in interrelation phases based on how your parents raised you and how you work with people around you.

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Imagine a child that is raised in an environment where everybody shuts him up; this can manifest in the form of trauma in future in the life of that person. For instance, we are sitting in a board meeting and such a person has an opinion, but he cannot say it because his mindset has been conditioned to shut his mouth. That would affect his productivity at work and lifestyle because if he doesn’t show that he is assertive and knows what he’s doing, it would affect how he rises in the organisation.

In Nigeria, it is very unfortunate that most of us have different sorts of trauma that inform our response to everyday life and we pass it on; so where you have an abusive boss or a toxic work environment, it’s as a result of trauma or bad experiences. The boss might be a good person but might have dealt with bad employees that embezzled his money, which forces him to react poorly. Trauma has a ripple effect and that is how bad corporate culture is formed, which is why I say we need to let the corporate environment know it’s okay for employees to take a break.

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What are the likely signs of mental health breakdown?
I think each organisation, especially at the federal and state government levels and the private sector, should always create a budget for mental health. Employers must work toward organising a workshop to enhance the mental health of workers; it should be the way you have fire drills in offices, we should be able to have mental health drills where people are sitting down where they have access to subsidised therapists and counselors that can help them with the problems that they tend to bring to work. I think that the government should take mental health more seriously.

There are different ways that sub-optimal mental health presents itself and depending on who the person is to you. For instance, if you’re a parent and it’s a child, if you’re a friend and it’s your other friend you can notice that maybe the person is withdrawn, maybe the person has become very quiet or more irritable or has mood swings. If someone is battling depression and you say ‘snap out of it, just be happy,’ that is not possible, because depression is a state of chemical imbalance in the brain, so it’s not fully within their control to just be happy so you need to be patient. You need to be present for them, even if it’s just sitting down without saying anything; let them know that you’re there for them.

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