WE NEED COMPETENT, INTELLIGENT WOMEN TO HOLD ELECTIVE OFFICES IN NIGERIA
Gloria Ogunbadejo has shared her life with different abused women abroad. From working with women from worn-torn countries, to counselling women in prison, she has really seen it all. She remains humbled by their plight as she becomes a part of their journey to freedom and gets angry when they are treated like garbage.
She attended Morris Brown College Atlanta Georgia, United States of America. As a mental health counsellor, Women in Prison in UK, she offers holistic, women- focused counselling to vulnerable women in prison and after they get out. Her job also includes providing psychological support and advocating on their behalf. The columnist who has began a mental journey home to Nigeria told Daily Sun in a recent chat that she has learnt humility and the true meaning of empathy as well as the impact extreme stress can have on people's mental health. Excerpts:
As a mental health counsellor, what is your opinion about the mental state of Nigerians generally?
Nigerians are going through a critical stage/age in their collective lives on so many levels, with mental health being one of them. We are not exempted from all the stressses of living in the modern world, with all its attendant problems but without the resources (some of which are particular to our society) we need available for us to cope with it. It would be easy though fecitious to simply say we are raving lunatics. The antics on the road, the clamoring of people in the markets, the displays of insanities sometimes observed in governmental settings, the incomprehensible, non-progressive style of the polity, the total lack of self respect and self esteem observed in how people conduct themselves within interpersonal relationships and so on are pointers to mental challenges.
What in your views are the factors militating against proper mental health administration in Nigeria?
Some of the more obvious reasons for this gap falls squarely on attitudes of service users and the service providers. There is still so much fear and misunderstanding around this subject. We might be comforted to know that much as attitudes have improved in the west there are still huge stigma's attached to mental illness, so we have a lot of work to do quickly on our side of the pond. There is poor lack of awareness about mental health issues and an almost total lack of visibility of any services available to the public.
Most times when people are referred to a psychiatrist, they refuse because they feel visiting a mental doctor means they are mad, what is your view on this?
There is a popular saying used in the UK that addresses that question. It says you don't have to have to be mad to have mental health problems. This is where having a range of other visible and accesible services would help to make people feel more comfortable about mental health problems. People rarely go to psychiatrists in the UK unless they will require medication for their particular problem which is not always a conclusion that their problem is severe, but it might. Even if the psychiatrist is the first port of call, they should be able to recommend the patient to whatever is more appropriate to their needs if it is available and this is where bulk of the work needs to take place in this field in Nigeria. The patient may require some form of talking therapy which could be short term, longterm, crisis work or it may be some other intervention, like group work for a variety of concerns.
As a mental health counsellor of women in prison, how would you describe your experience so far?
My experience in this specific line of work has been almost indescribable. I went in with so many preconceived ideas, expectations and prejudices about what types of people were in prison and my views on how to interact with them. I couldn't have been more surprised with what I encountered than I was. There have been so many epiphany moments. The knowledge that there are times when you literararily stand between a clients freedom and continued incarceration, or sometimes even more daunting between the chance of her getting the medical services she needs and her possibly loosing her life through negligence or commiting suicide. This can be a very sobering position to be in.
How long have you been working there and what lessons have you learnt in the course of your job?
I have been working in this particular area for 5 years. Prior to this, I worked for six years with women from war- torn countries who had experienced violence and abuse on extreme levels. The lessons I learn't from both groups of women on a professional level is that the impact and scars of early childhood trauma almost always shapes, distorts the views of their lives later and is instrumental in forming how their decision making mechanisms are set up, which is faulty. I learn't that almost all the women in the prison had been sexually abused as children or young people. They have become young adults who continued to allow themselves to be victims of other abuse which is what they had learned as the only choices they could make. On a personal level, I learnt humility and the true meaning of empathy. I learn't what the impact of extreme stress can have on people's mental health.
You advise and counsel these women, how do they respond?
Many of the women struggle with the concept of counselling and had various expectations. Mostly, they want to be told what to do and how to think, which was the antithesis of how I had been trained in a classically psychoanalytical traditional style of counselling and psychotherapy. Inevitably, I had to develop a different way to approach the women in their space which is what any counsellor/therapist worth their weight in gold would do. I deconstucted most of what I had learn't and embraced a more culturally relevant approach to work with the women. I was rewarded with a generosity of allowing me to get glimpses of their world and embark on their painful healing journies with them. I was showered with gratitude in a variety of personal gifts, and never ending prayers from my Nigerian clients. This was a huge cause of concern to my employers as a this is an absolute taboo in our line of work, to receive any kind of offerings from clients. I had to explain that this was 'our' way and they had to make allowances.
How relevant do you think counseling is to women who are in prison?
Counseling in the form that is relevant and accessible to the women is like a life line, certainly containment of their out of control lives and empowering. For some, it is the first time someone has offered them the space and time to listen to what they had to say and to validate their feelings and pain. Many of the women eventually get to a point for the first time in their lives where they actually felt they could make different choices from the ones they had been making. They feel more empowered to take the chance in charting new territories and writing new scripts for their lives.
How do you keep in touch with them after they leave prison so as to follow up on your counsel so that they don't get into trouble again?
I am involved in a unique pilot project which works with the women for two years on an ongoing basis, something that had not been done before. Most of the women in prison on previous ocasions would have the support of prison service or other welfare services on a one-off basis which was most ineffective. On my project, I work with the women while they are incarcerated, I support and prepare them to be released into the community and continue to support them for up to two years after they are released. The results are phenomenal, but our aim is always to enable the women become autonomous and responsible for their own actions and not dependent on us, so preparing them for the end of the relationship is always in motion. Ending is always traumatic but as professionals we are taught how to prepare our clients and ourselves for the endings.
Why did you go into mental health and counseling and what have you achieved with it?
I have always had an interest in people for as long as I can remember. I recall my mother telling me as a toddler as young as 2 years old, I was prepared to talk to adults, and to anyone else who was prepared to listen to me. My nick name was 'chatter box'. Professionally, I worked in the media and always had people tell me intimate details of their lives. It was just a natural progression as my interest grew about the human mind and what made us think and behave the way we do.
After I made peace with myself that the other traditional profession simply didn't interest me, I made a conscious decision to acquire as much knowledge as I could in the field. What I was'nt prepared for was how much I would love it and it was bottomless pit as far as how much there is to learn. My achievements to me are very personal and my life has been enriched beyond words having had the opportunity and good fortune to be a part of so many peoples life's journey. Other achievements I can humbly claim are bringing relief to people in desperate psychological pain and in some cases, being a part of saving people's lives. I don't think there can be any greater achievement.
How fulfilling and financially rewarding is it?
The fulfillment for me has been absolute. | can say I am one of the lucky people in life who is not only passionate about the work they do, but enjoys going to work. The issue of mental health is quite a major consideration in our lives today globally, with the state of the world as it is. As a result, there is a lot of work to be done and it can be financially very rewarding. It has been a mixed blessing for me, simply because the client group I choose to work with mostly do not have the means to pay the monies that would allow me to live a life of luxury. As a result, I am regularly forced to work with clients that will fill the gap and allow me to continue to work with the clients of my choice. This can cause moral conflicts within me at times but I quickly get over it.
How do you advocate for these ex-cons so that the society will totally absorb them?
As part of my remit, I am regularly invited to conferences to speak about the mental health, needs and experiences of African women in the diaspora, refugee women, women in prison, the impact of domestic violence, harmful traditional practices, so my role as an advocate is on going and far reaching. I also hold workshops to raise awareness and to train other professionals working with these clients.
How long have you been in the UK and do you have plans to come back home finally?
I have been in the UK for a couple of decades now and I feel very excited to begin my return home which is a process that started emotionally a few years ago and now the rest of me is about to follow.
Can you compare what obtains in the UK and in Nigeria regarding mental health?
I think attitudes and awareness is one of the biggest differences. Next to that would be the availability of appropriate mental health services.
How do you combine your duties as a wife, mother and career woman?
At the risk of sounding cliched, I have an incredibly strong, supportive and amazing husband. And together we have been blessed with equally strong, supportive and amazing children. We work symbiotically as a family celebrating one another's successes, closing ranks and encouraging one another through challenges. This is in no way trying to portray a romantic unrealistic ideal. It is not possible to have everything all at the same time and some things will suffer, so it is imperative to have as close to similar goals as possible, make priorities and sacrifices for one another. It is different for everyone. Our combination involves humour, respect, compromise, infinite love and passion.
What are your views about the 35% derivative of elective office the first lady, Dame Patience Jonathan is clamouring for women in Nigeria?
Any project that would raise the numbers of women's roles in politics can only be good thing, so the First Lady should be commended on her efforts and vision. However, if we scratch a little further and move away from the accolades there is a much more serious issue here. Men have remained the central players in African politics since Independence with the needs and welfare of women being ignored at best and diminished at worse. Women can no longer afford to be marginalized and inadequately represented. With this in mind, not only do we need the numbers increased but we need intelligent, disciplined and competent women in those roles otherwise it will simply be a worthless exercise. What Rwanda has managed to accomplish as the only country in the world with the highest percentage of women in parliament, boasting 56% of women occupying parliamentary seats is nothing short of a stunning achievement and something to strive for. With that, they have garnered the political will and clout to make a difference in changing many of the discriminatory laws impacting negatively on their women's lives, something that we would be wise to emulate. We have a lot of serious work to be done, which can only be done with the right people for the job and that is the same across the board.
What was the worst case you have handled in the course of your job?
Once again, there are so many to recall, but a recurring outrage for me was advocating on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers and the treatment they suffered at the hands of immigration and the even changing damaging asylum laws. In particular, women would be asked on a regular basis to recall, recount (to relive for all intents and purpose), and their experiences of violence, sexual abuse, at the end of which the authorities would quabble over the women not remembering whether it was ten men or 15 men who raped them, and this discrepancy was evidence to them that the women's stories were untrue. It beggars belief about the inhumanity that is heaped on these women. Just thinking about it makes my blood boil.
Tell us about yourself and what you hope to achieve in future.
I'm not sure there's much more for me to say about myself other than my work is very important to me, but my family means everything to me. I feel honoured to work in my field. I am very excited about the future professionally as I am home bound. I think Nigerians are a very complex and simple people. Much as this sounds like an oxymoron, it becomes evident when you experience their sophistication, intellect, naievity, hospitality, warmth, kindness, ambition, humour,and cruelity all wrapped up in one. All the elements required for therapy. I hope to bring the best of my expertise and knowledge in mental health home to Nigeria and join those already doing good work to improve our collective mental health.