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‘Women should take their mental, physical health seriously’

Gbonjubola

Dr. Gbonjubola Abiri is a Consultant Psychiatrist, Managerial Psychologist, and the CEO of Redi-Med Consulting Services, a Medical Consultancy firm. She has received trainings from the King’s College London, University of Washington and the prestigious Harvard University, Boston USA. Passionate about research in child and adolescent forensic, women’s mental health, and occupational mental health, Gbonjubola is a Mental Health advocate and influencer who is driven by the holistic view to health. She also uses her knowledge in Psychiatry and Psychology to influence and maximize effectiveness and productivity in the workplace via the Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

Dr. Abiri regularly attends both local and international conferences where she presents findings from local research in her field on a global scale. She volunteers with the Adorable Foundation International (an NGO against drug abuse), the Pastor Bimbo Odukoya (PBO) Foundation and the Live-well Initiative. She is a Fellow of the West Africa College of Physicians (FWACP), a member of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), the Association of Psychiatrists in Nigeria (APN), the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA). In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA she shares her passion for psychiatry and why it is necessary to be mentally healthy.

Your passion for mental health, is it beyond being a psychiatrist?
A GIFT that I have always had from way back is that people are comfortable speaking with me, telling me their issues and asking for my opinion on how to solve them.

My dad once observed me as a child going out in the rain to pick a chicken we reared to shelter. He concluded that I would be a Doctor in future. My dad was a doctor and a role model for me as well.

In medical school, the posting I enjoyed and was drawn to the most was Psychiatry. An external posting in Psychiatry, which I attended in my fifth year of medical school at the University College Hospital, was also a defining moment for me. I recall attending a family session anchored by one of my greatest influences and mentor, Prof Omigbodun. It was intriguing as we all listened to the intricate experiences of their lives and challenges. It was on that day I became sold out to Psychiatry.

In recent times, depression and suicide have become the order of the day, what is responsible?
The reason for this is multi-factorial. We usually talk about causation in psychiatry as interplay of the biopsychosoical (a combination of Biological, psychological and social).

Biological includes genetic causation, underlying physical illness; psychological include issues of personality/temperament, self-esteem or confidence levels, while social includes causative factors influenced by society such as life events or chronic difficulties.

Many cases of depression and suicide these days are influenced by social factors such as stressful life events, which include loss, abuse, parental deprivation, dysfunctional families, unemployment, economic recession, and financial difficulty.

Other factors include: stigmatisation and discrimination, which make people, refuse care, cultural and religious perceptions and responses to illnesses. There is also more awareness of mental health issues with increased reporting of cases by individuals and increased focus on mental health issues by the medical community, the society and the media as well.

Do you think more people are speaking out and seeking for help?
There is a lot more awareness on the media about the issues of mental illness, which informs and educates people. There is also an active drive towards reducing the stigma and discrimination associated with mental health issues as well as efforts geared at acceptance and humane treatment of those with the illness. The distresses that people with this illness face also make them want to seek help and relief from their conditions.

Sharing of experiences from user groups (those who have had the illness and have sought help) also assists in lending a voice. These and more are improving the help seeking behaviour of individuals.

In one of your write-ups you stated that loneliness has become an emerging public health crisis, can you expatiate?
In a world with 7.5billion people, where we have more and more ways to communicate, we appear to spend less and less time with people that matter to us.

While research has shown that one in four American adults state that they rarely feel as though they have close family or friends who understand them, in Asia, the rate of loneliness amongst older adults has roughly doubled from 16-30 per cent over a 16-year period.

In Nigeria as well, loneliness has also been documented especially amongst the older adults. Loneliness is an emerging public-health crisis and while people understand it is a problem, few people realise the severity of its effects on a person’s mental and physical health. Loneliness is often described as a discrepancy between what someone has and what he or she needs.

Although it is a perfectly normal feeling, it becomes worrisome when it is chronic, occurring for weeks, months or decades and begins to impair functioning.

Research from the Kings College, London has revealed that loneliness is at par with obesity and smoking in terms of its impact on a person’s risk for death. It increases the odds for hypertension, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.

Loneliness also increases rates for stress, and other mental issues such as depression, anxiety disorders and self-harm. This gap was also noticed by the British PM, Theresa May who had to appoint a Minister for Loneliness to oversee efforts to address this issue.

Do you think women are more susceptible to depression than men?
Research indicates that the rates of depression are twice as great in women as men in different cultures. The reason for the higher rates is uncertain. However, the increase appears to be apparent at puberty and may be due to a greater readiness to admit to depressive symptoms in women.

Women are also more often than men to be subjected to various kinds of social disadvantage such as sexual abuse and domestic violence, thus increasing their risk for depression.

In addition, men are unlikely to express feelings of depression. They engage in maladaptive coping mechanisms such as excessive alcohol misuse more than in women, often leading to a misdiagnosis of alcohol misuse. The society is less tolerant to women drinking.

What are some of the triggers of depression especially for women?
The cultural factors and societal expectations of the female gender, multiple roles assigned to women, exposure to physical, emotional and sexual abuse, biological make up and influence of hormones which increases in the pre-pubertal, premenstrual and even menopausal stages tense up women naturally. The challenges of marriage, pregnancy, motherhood, career and all the caps women put on, put them also at an increased risk for depression.

What advise do you have for women on moving on with their lives and living above a depressed state?
We as women have to learn to value ourselves more as individuals. We should work hard at empowering ourselves, loving ourselves, believing in and supporting ourselves. We should give other women a pedestal to go higher instead of dragging them down. Be the voice for another female whose rights are being violated, even if it is a child.

Women should also take their mental and physical health seriously. We tend to take care of everyone else but ourselves. Self-care is not selfish. We need to replenish the energy that we let out on a daily basis. We must realise that we cannot serve from an empty vessel.

How do you juggle between work, family and its challenges?
It’s tough I must confess, especially when you live in a city like Lagos, which has its own unique peculiarities.

However, I refer to it as beautifully challenging as I am especially grateful for life, work and family. I prioritise my family over everything else. I also make compromises including flexible work hours, a pay cut, taking time out to enjoy the pleasures of life.

Tell us a bit about growing up and how it has influenced your work?
I was raised in a loving, close-knit family. We were never home as a nuclear family as we always had family over. My parents taught us to be kind to people and to treat people well, irrespective of their status. They taught us values of respect, hard work, dedication and integrity. They also taught us that while money is important, it is not everything especially as relationships are also important and will show up for you in ways money cannot.

There are days when I go above and beyond to give support and care to a patient who is unable to afford it. I don’t ever want to be the reason why a patient did not receive care. If I can’t provide it, I will at least point the person in the direction to get help.

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