‘Women should engage in activities that enhance their mental wellbeing’
Aisha Abdullahi Bubah is a Psychologist trained in Ghana and India with years of experience practicing psychotherapy in various sectors of mental health, including drug addiction rehabilitation, school setting, psychiatric care and community mental health. A certified Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) practitioner from the California Hypnosis Institute and also trained in Cognitive Analytical Therapy from IACAT UK, she is the lead Psychologist and founder of The Sunshine Series – Mind wellness, a psychotherapy centre.
Through her organisation, she started a social impact project called The Mind Wheel, which offers free counselling to Nigerians to minimise the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Aisha envisions a Nigeria where every individual has equal access to mental health support and systems that promote mental wellbeing. This, she believes, will significantly reduce the crime rate, menace of drug abuse and other social vices prevalent in our society. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, she shares her values and goals towards achieving a sane society.
Take us through your journey and passion for mental health?
Growing up in Northern Nigeria, we had our fair share of experience with riots and then the insurgency we are currently battling with. I struggled with a lot of bottled-up emotions related to anxiety and grief from these experiences. And, seeing how the insurgency wreaked havoc in my state, Borno, and the impact on my relatives,
I always wondered, where does all the personal trauma go to?
I studied Psychology in university and then clearly understood that the trauma doesn’t just go away; it stays or it manifests in many other ways, good or bad. And this we see in so many ways in our society with an increase in the rate of drug abuse, social injustices, gender-based violence, suicide and other mental health issues.
As I went along with my studies, I found my bigger purpose. It all added up and I realised that there is a way that we don’t have to live with our traumas or continually get haunted by them. I learnt there are ways to build positive skills that can make one look forward to and build a thriving life not marred by violence.
Your social impact organisation offers free counselling to Nigerians to minimise the impact of COVID-19, how are you able to achieve this?
When the news of the COVID-19 virus was announced in Nigeria last year, it changed our lives. The pandemic led to an overburdening of our health system and an overall panic, influencing our socioeconomic wellbeing. And during the lockdown, Nigerians experienced a decline in their mental wellbeing. This was evident in the conversations that were happening on social media, with people expressing the level of distress they were in.
This prompted me to start the Mind Wheel project, which aimed to offer free online counselling to Nigerians struggling with the impact of the pandemic.
My team and I put out a call for volunteer counsellors and we put together training for them on providing psychosocial support due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At a point, we had to train our volunteer counsellors on handling calls related to sexual and gender-based violence as we saw a rise in calls related to it. Within a span of three months, we had attended to over 100 calls. We received support from the Federal Government of Nigeria through the Federal Ministry of Special Duties and Intergovernmental Affairs and The Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy to expand the reach of our counselling support to reach more people who don’t have access to Internet services to access the online counselling. This was how we pioneered the first mental health helpline on our national emergency number 112, which is currently piloting in the FCT.
What has been the response of the mental health helpline? Is it achieving its purpose?
Yes, our helpline is currently working in Abuja and the response has been so overwhelmingly good. We have attended to hundreds of calls related to concerns like anxiety, depression, suicide, and domestic violence. We have made many referrals to other organisations like NAPTIP in domestic violence and abuse cases.
Another amazing part is that we have been getting calls from a diverse age group; young adults, older adults, also men and women. This positive reception validated the findings of a survey we conducted to check the impact of COVID-19 on the mental wellbeing of Nigerians, which showed an increase in levels of mental distress experienced by the respondents due to the pandemic. This is why we have also started setting plans in motion to expand the helpline to more states as we have also been getting same requests from people outside Abuja via our social media pages.
In recent times, depression and suicide have become the order of the day, what is responsible for that?
There are many factors that increase cases of depression and suicide. I would like to, however, point that there has always been high rates of depression and suicide, which suffers under reportage and poor data in Nigeria. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, cases of depression and suicide became more evident due to the impact of the pandemic like economic downturn, experience of loss and grief, social isolation, work-related stress and many other factors.
There was an increase in rates of drug abuse as a coping mechanism. There was an increase in rates of gender-based violence during lockdown, which is called the shadow pandemic in a report by UN Women. The world is going through an experience that has shaken the core of our being as humans. And since everyone has mental health, there is bound to be an increase in depression and suicide cases due to all these negative experiences.
Do you think more people are speaking out now and seeking help?
Yes, I think more people are speaking out. On more people seeking help, I can say yes, but only to a little extent. People are still a bit hesitant to seek help and many factors influence this like the stigma attached to seeking mental health support. This is why, along with providing the services we do, we equally take mental health education very seriously. We have been using various platforms online and offline to advocate for intentional actions by individuals, organisations and communities towards improving their mental wellbeing.
To this effect, we focus a lot on training lay counsellors, equipping them with skills to offer basic psychosocial support within their communities and areas of work. This will help in spreading more accurate information about mental health and demystifying it, through trained lay counsellors, who can also identify warning signs of severe mental health issues and make referrals to specialists.
What aspect of mental health are you passionate about?
Well, if you put it this way, I will say every aspect. I just want every individual, irrespective of gender, age, or socioeconomic status to be able to access services and the support that improves their mental wellbeing and allows them to live a thriving and happy life. I don’t think it is too much to ask for; I strongly believe this can change the world for the better.
But to break it to a smaller goal, I am passionate about strengthening communities with skills to collectively improve their mental health. This is done by training lay counsellors and psychological first aiders in different sectors of the society like schools, religious centres, organisations, NGOs, women and youth centres, refugee/internally displaced persons camp, etc. Imagine a society where every one in 10 persons is trained to be a good listener; a lot of the world’s problems will be solved before they explode.
What drives you?
I come from a family that is extremely supportive of the dreams that I have in terms of my work. Being a girl-child has never been a barrier; my parents have provided me with every resource I needed growing up to dream beyond the sky. And when I think about this, and all the possible wrong ways my life could have turned out as a girl-child who is often disadvantaged in my community, I tell myself I cannot stop doing what I do. And more especially when I hear other girls and young women within and outside Nigeria say that I inspire them, it fills my heart with all the joy and drive I need.
Share with us some of your activities, especially as it relates to people living in IDP camps?
We offer therapy sessions (individual, couple, family, group therapies); we offer trainings in lay counselling skills and psychological first aid. We also offer advanced trainings for mental health and medical practitioners in techniques like cognitive behavioural therapy. We design and implement employee assistance programmes for corporate organizations aimed at enhancing employee wellbeing and productivity. We provide drug addiction recovery services.
On the interventions we offer to people living in IDP camps, we have run support groups for the elderly, and young women on coping with trauma and building positive skills to cope with their new life. We also train IDP camp teachers in lay counselling skills and psychological first aid to identify any warning signs of psychological distress in their students and to provide psychosocial support.
We also currently run a sexual and gender-based violence project for young women and girls in IDP camps in Benue state called The She for Love Project, which launched on February 14. This project provides free trauma-focused therapy sessions to the women and girls, to learn positive skills to cope with their trauma and build a better future.
What are some of the triggers of depression, especially for women?
Triggers can vary, but may largely be influenced by negative life experiences like abuse, sexual violence, socioeconomic disadvantage, childbirth, and unhealthy relationships. It can also be purely biological, resulting from a chemical imbalance in the brain. This may not be due to any negative life experiences.
What advise do you have for women on moving on with their lives and living above a depressed state?
I will say that the darkness doesn’t stay forever. It gets better. But being intentional about protecting your mental wellbeing is a priority and your fundamental right. Actively engage in activities that enhance your mental wellbeing and you will see that you are able to attain your best when in a good mental state. When you take ownership of enhancing your mental wellbeing, know that you are speaking for thousands of other women out there. And when you find that it is getting all too overwhelming, seek help. Find a professional and address your feelings and distress.
In your years of practice, what do you consider issues women face that affect their mental health?
Sexual and gender-based violence is a major trigger for post-traumatic stress syndrome in women. Childbirth can also come with post-partum depression, which is experienced, by a lot of women. Hormonal imbalances present in health conditions like PCOS can present with mental health challenges for some women.
Socio-economic factors that put women in a financially disadvantaged situation can negatively impact their mental health. Stress related to a combination of work and caregiving for some women can be intense, negatively influencing their mental health with issues like anxiety, feelings of depression, and burn out. Women often deal with the grief associated to loss of their spouses in war torn places, and sometimes even displacement and single parenthood. These are some issues that women face which can affect their mental health.