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Fighting Mental Health With Hauwa Ojeifo

Nigerians are becoming more aware of mental illnesses and the effect on the human psyche. This awareness is no small feat, taking efforts from spectacular individuals like Hauwa Ojeifo. She was also one of three Nigerians that recently received Queen Elizabeth’s Young Leaders Award, a prestigious award which celebrates the achievements of some of the most exciting young change-makers in the Commonwealth nations.

The Future Awards Africa award nominee has used her platform SheWritesWoman to provide aid and enlighten Nigerians about mental health. The Guardian Life team caught up with her to speak about her life and work.

What experiences spurred you in the direction of humanitarian work?

As a Muslim, charity is a fundamental pillar. My worldview from a very young age has always been about positive impact and legacy. Before I started my organisation, I was very involved in various humanitarian initiatives. In 2009, I was a local fundraiser for international charity organisations like Orphans In Need and Islamic Relief.

Can you tell us about the SheWritesWoman initiative?

SheWritesWoman is a movement of love, hope and support for women living with mental disorders in Nigeria. The initiative was born out of my own diagnoses of bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) coupled with psychosis and suicidal idealisations. Initially, it was an outlet for me [until] it became a lifeline for other women who were silently going through some form and level of mental, emotional and behavioural disorders across Nigeria.

In the time that you have been doing this, what are the things you have been able to achieve?

We initiated the first-ever privately-held 24/7 mental health helpline in Nigeria. It’s the first point of call for mental health first aid, information, finding mental health care around you, caring for a loved one living with mental health challenges and referrals to mental health professionals.

Our monthly mental health support group, Safe Place is a confidential and anonymous group. [It] meets to release, be vulnerable and have honest conversations.

Our weekly social media live stream, Talk Back Thursday, helps tackle, answer and educate on everyday issues around mental health.

What are the major challenges you have encountered?

At the time we started, the entire mental health ecosystem was largely in shambles. Even psychiatric hospitals that are underfunded to properly render quality mental health care to patients have bureaucratic hurdles lined up for us to jump through.

Majority of Nigerians are still prejudiced towards mental health either by not wanting to associate with mental illness or not being willing to financially support.

There’s [also] a ‘religion’ problem in Nigeria where people have been told that mental illness is some form of demonic possession. So, instead of seeking help early enough, they take measures that aggravate and lengthen their pathway to mental wellness.

Do you think the average Nigerian’s mindset towards mental illness has changed positively?

In our first six to nine months, people will send DMs or emails appreciating our good work and sharing how we’ve helped them or loved ones. They’ll go on to confess that they don’t [like] our Instagram posts or leave comments because they don’t want anyone knowing that they follow us, so as not pass the ‘wrong message’. Today, people are boldly leaving comments about their struggles, diagnoses, battles with medications and much more. We’ve barely scratched the surface, but we’ve changed the mindset of many Nigerians.

What projects does SheWritesWoman have planned?

We are restarting our monthly support group, Safe Place, run in Lagos and Ibadan, in Abuja and adding at least three other locations to this. We also have plans for outreach and empowerment programmes at select psychiatric hospitals.

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