Her deep infectious laughter is the kind that rings in your head long after ending a conversation, the kind that makes you happy and leaves you wondering whether such a person has ever experienced anything other than joy. But Hauwa Ojeifo has experienced a darker side of life. A bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis in 2015 led her to start She Writes Woman in April 2016, when she could not find any support group to help her through her mental illness.
She Writes Woman is a movement of love, hope and support for women with mental illness. In July, just three months after its creation, She Writes Woman launched the first 24/7 mental illness helpline in Nigeria and have received calls locally and internationally since, helping people better understand mental illness and most important providing them with the right professional help.
In the words of the 25-year-old Business Administration graduate and fashion enthusiast, “Mental illness is not a death sentence, it is not wearing rags by the road in a bin pile. That’s the picture that always comes to mind even unconsciously. I always tell people that you can live an extraordinary life even with mental illness. I don’t try to be normal, I am extraordinary despite and in spite of my mental illness”. Hauwa is living the dream, here’s her story.
MIM: What led to She Writes Woman?
HO: People used to say that I was an extrovert and suddenly I became an introvert and the truth is somehow I had always known that I had these extreme highs and lows; I just felt that’s my personality and that’s what a lot of people like family and friends thought. But a couple of things started happening and I realised that overtime, my highs became higher and my lows became lower. I would start so many business during a period of time, I had a burst of ideas, and all of a sudden, I would just totally check out of the business. In addition to that, a lot of people don’t talk about the hyper sexuality part that comes with it especially if you are someone who does not want to explore for whatever reasons, it can literally drive you crazy. It’s like a taboo of the taboo. Of course, when all that feeling of grandiose and hyper activity finishes; I crash and all of a sudden, I’m like zero, I can’t even get out of bed. As much as this illness is invisible, it has some physical implications, it’s hard to explain but you just can’t move your limbs. I started having suicidal thoughts like what if I just step onto the road when that car is coming, maybe it would just be an accident. One of the times I really felt an incredible force to go through with the suicidal ideation, I realized that I needed to get help before I hurt myself and the people around me. I got help and It’s being a little over a year now since I started taking medication.
MIM: What is the reality of mental illness in Nigeria
HO: Almost everyone that we know will have a mental illness at some point in their life and it is a reality. I think everything pretty much goes back to how we see mental illness because the same way your body can break down physically, it can also break down mentally. In Nigeria, we make do of our circumstance but that doesn’t mean it holds well on our mental health. It doesn’t mean we are not deferring an inevitable because our mental health will one day come under scrutiny and we might have to see a doctor. It is not a ‘white man’s illness’, it can happen to anyone; the reality is that a lot of people are living with mental illness. Simply because we are looking at happy faces does not mean that there is no depression, we are looking for depression on sad faces and that’s the mistake. We think that depression is sadness or moodiness but the truth is we need to look extra closely at the people with happy faces.
MIM: How does the family deal with mental illness diagnosis?
HO: The family unit is one of the single most powerful support systems that someone with mental illness can have, the family can also be the biggest deterrent of recovery for anybody. A lot of people deal with their family being in denial even after the individual has come to a place of acceptance. Sometimes, denial might mean that they are going to stop you from seeking help because they believe there is nothing wrong with you. The truth is denial is coming from a place of love because it is hard to process your loved one having a mental illness because we take it like a death sentence. It’s unfortunate that we have to prove our illness to people before they realize the severity of the situation. Family can make or mar someone with mental illness; there’s so much a family can do to help with recovery and the family will most likely be the first to spot warning signs and has the responsibility, the first approach to say there is something off here.
HO: You have to go from a place of love; you can’t call individuals out from a place of judgement, you are only going to push them away. The thing with mental illness unfortunately because of the stigma is that it’s almost like you are being defensive when someone is trying to approach you. I always tell people that you have to form a relationship with the individual so that from a place of love they would listen to you when you say ‘I am worried for you’. If you see signs with someone in the family, approach them first and try to get the person to realize that there is something off here; then seek professional help once you can see the warning signs. So, it’s back to awareness and education; I always tell people that if you go for a physical check-up, add mental check-up as well. We need to begin to incorporate mental health into our total wellness and wellbeing, I think that’s the only way we will be able to combat the problem properly.
MIM: How difficult is it for mental health patients to ‘come-out’
HO: It’s very hard and unfortunately, it’s a vicious cycle. The mental illness stigma is a misconceived ideology, a tainted narrative in the society, it is completely untrue and sabotaged by a lot of people who know absolutely nothing about mental illness. That’s why at She Writes Woman, we say we are taking back the narrative because there is already an existing narrative however silly and uneducated the narrative is and when we keep quiet, we are fuelling it because it keeps going on and when we talk, we get stigmatized. We just have to keep it going in terms of damning the consequences so I’m going to talk regardless, so that we can begin to correct the narrative of mental illness one conversation at a time. Coming out doesn’t mean going on social media to announce to the world that you have a mental illness; speaking up simply means actively seeking professional help and talking to the right people.
MIM: What are the common misconceptions of mental illness?
HO: Nigerians are a very spiritual people and this cuts across different religions; the fact that we have reduced mental illness to a spiritual attack deters a lot of people from seeking help. It’s a misconception that is eating deep into people; you can be religious and still have a mental illness. One of the biggest ways we can combat the stigma of mental illness is if we take it to the church and the mosque. There are some religious institutions who are doing a lot, they do rehabilitation and have psychologists on board and that is really amazing but we need more of that. We are very religiously vulnerable, now imagine if all the religious leaders encouraged their followers to seek psychiatric help, it will take just one sermon and will go a long way. People are dying because of this misconception, people are waiting on a miracle. In no way am I discounting spirituality; if spirituality is a part of your life, then it will be a part of your recovery.
MIM: Does mental illness have a cure?
HO: Theoretically, no. It can be managed very well to a point of it almost seeming non-existent but let’s be very wary to draw the line between things that are acute and things that are chronic. Acute being depression for example, is linked to an event or a situation and can be managed with some psychotherapy over a period of time; the one that one needs to be very wary of is the chronic one that you can’t place a finger on, sometimes, everything is going perfectly in your life and you still have depression, that is the one that you rarely see people get out of very quickly and is what we usually refer to when we say mental illness.
MIM: Is treatment of mental illness expensive?
HO: Medication is expensive, that’s the fact because when you look at the average person in a psychiatric hospital in a public sphere, two medications costs about N3000 a month, whilst that may seem small, we are talking about a person who uses that same amount to feed in a month. Therapy can be expensive depending on what you are looking at; in the public sphere, therapy costs about N3000 for 6 sessions which is fantastic but again we are talking about people living on less than $2 per day. The only challenge I have with the public facility is that there’s no sense of continuity, no sense of doctor-patient relationship so it can be heart breaking when you connect with a doctor and at your next session you meet a different doctor, but we really can’t complain because the reality is there’s 1 psychiatrist to 2 million Nigerians.
MIM: Any particular reason why you focus on women?
HO: I felt like I could relate, as a woman, I could relate with so many things that women go through and maybe that’s the reason God made me go through those things. I just really got it from a woman’s perspective and I could see it and really understand why things are a lot different for a woman, why we should be extra careful about women, why we should pay women extra attention, why we should look at the woman twice about so many things. There’s a lot in the society that makes women disadvantaged, somehow, we need to tip the scale and it’s about protecting women and realizing that we are very vulnerable in this kind of society and we need enough help, there isn’t enough help for women.
MIM: How has the society received your message since She Writes Woman?
HO: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. It felt like everyone was waiting for one person to step forward and do it. It’s been amazing feedback; people want to come on board every time, help you fundraise, it’s been fantastic. Another thing that has really helped is the social media age, I don’t know how many people we have helped by virtue of social media platforms. I realized that when I stepped forward to tell my story, it wasn’t just my story, it was the story of a lot men and women across Nigeria. So everybody almost feels like it is a movement that is personal to them and it is personal to all of us.