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Esther Akinnukawe: Reshaping Mental Health In Nigeria

From June 1 to June 21 2019, telecommunications giant MTN Nigeria Communications Plc, held its annual 21 Days of Y’ello Care programme, themed “Creating a Brighter Future for the Youth,” with mental health awareness as a flagship focus. The Guardian Life sat down with the company’s Chief Human Resources Officer, Esther Akinnukawe, to throw more light on the telco’s contributions to addressing the issue of mental health in Nigeria.

What is the 21 Days of Y’ello Care about?

The 21 Days of Y’ello Care is our staff volunteering initiative and an opportunity for all our employees to give back to the communities in which we operate, and this is across the country. The aim is to brighten the lives of the people in those communities.

How successful would you say the initiative has been?

From inception, the initiative has been a major success because of its visible impact. Every year we have a theme that we work with. This year the theme is Creating a Brighter Future for the Youth and within that theme, our focus is to empower our youth through ICT. In that regard, we have donated E-libraries to different schools across the nation, organised skill acquisition programs for students and even the teachers. We have done career fests and also organised a hackathon for young developers to create technological solutions to problems we are faced with in our world today. The feedback has been outstanding.

MTN Nigeria Chief Human Resources Officer, Esther Akinnukawe. Photo: Neusroom

With over 26 years of experience in HR, have you had any significant contact with anyone dealing with a mental health issue, and how was it handled?

When we talk about mental health, people often think about the extreme cases of mental health. If you observe a change in the pattern of behaviour of an individual, that’s a sign that there is a problem. When we encounter employees with this problem, what we do is quickly get help for them because we have a network of hospitals that we partner with through the Health Maintenance Organisation (HMO) that we implement; we get in touch with counsellors from the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and they quickly provide help for the employee involved. After a short period of time you would find out that things have returned to normal.

How do you break through the ‘tough guy’ defence most Nigerians put up to ensure that they get the help they need?

For us in MTN what we do is education. We constantly talk about the issue at every opportunity available to us. We let people know that if you have a mental health issue, you need help and shouldn’t think anybody will look at you as less of a tough guy. We believe that there is no health without mental health and people are beginning to imbibe that they can actually speak up to ask for help about their mental health. When you seek help, it doesn’t mean you aren’t a strong person, it means you are self-aware. The same way you don’t feign being tough about having malaria, you shouldn’t feign tough about your mental health.

We have partnered with the Employees Assistance Network (EAN) through our HMOs and we have shared this information with our employees and told them to speak with them if they have issues.


Aside these, we have an in-house medical team that does the first level of profiling. Anything and everything you discuss with them is confidential. We also encourage Line Managers to watch out for their team members and if they notice a change in the pattern of behaviour of any team member, they are expected to quickly alert the proper medical authorities so they can swing into action.

We understand that many things can lead to mental issues including sexual harassment. MTN has a zero tolerance for sexual harassment because it can be a trigger for some people’s mental health issues. We even have a whistleblowing policy to help people that can’t come forward.

Is it possible to have a thriving work habit while dealing with mental health issues?

It is possible for someone dealing with mental health issues to be productive or appear to be productive. Some people’s coping mechanism is to throw themselves into work. They will appear to be thriving and be the best employee you have but there is an underlying mental issue they are not dealing with and it’s not healthy if they don’t seek help. That is why it is not enough to just assume someone is doing well and equate productivity to mental wellness.

What advice would you give others interacting with people who have mental health issues?

The first thing is empathy, and it is very key because most times it is easy to ask if the person dealing with a mental health issue is the only one ‘suffering’. We forget that we have different coping mechanisms.

Furthermore, seek help on their behalf; make them understand there is a problem and if they don’t want to see it, help them get the help they deserve.

Confidentiality is also important. It is not your place to share the information someone dealing with mental issues shares with you. Only health professionals need to know because the stigmatisation is what prevents most people from sharing their mental issues. Anybody who has no business knowing doesn’t need to know.

In this article:
Esther Akinnukawe
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