As coronavirus continues ravaging businesses and people, despite efforts from the governments and civil society organisations, in this interview, Mrs Opeyemi Ojabanjo-Lawal makes case for a mental health programme for the survivors and healthcare professionals attending to the victims. According to her, this is necessary considering the fact that the pandemic has brought a number of psychological symptoms, which need management using holistic approach. Mrs Ojabanjo-Lawal is the brain behind Stablemums, a non-governmental organisation that prioritises maternal mental health promotion and management in Nigeria.
Tekedia: We are in a new decade and the first major disaster is a global disease pandemic that has killed thousands of people and millions of victims. Can we say the World is being tested?
Opeyemi: I wouldn’t say the world is being tested. And if it seems, the world is being tested, then I believe the world is not being tested beyond what it can handle. It just a call to remind us that whatever affects my neighbour affects me.
Tekedia: How would you describe the situation in Nigeria from the perspective of the measures being used by the governments and other stakeholders since first index case?
Opeyemi: Since the first index case, it was obvious that government didn’t first understand what was happening until the cases increased. The government is trying their best, and they need to do more. I realized that the government (FG and SG) didn’t synergize because it is not just a Lagos or Abuja or Ogun issue, it is a national issue just like it is a global issue. It also shows that the government did not have a crisis management template to work it no matter how sketchy it may appear. They just relied on what they think other countries are doing without looking at the peculiarities of Nigeria. So far, the numbers are increasing and it is getting scary.
Tekedia: Every day, media are churning out figures about the cases, deaths and recoveries. What is your assessment of the approaches being used for the pandemic related information dissemination in Nigeria compare to other countries?
Opeyemi: I will say they are doing their job. Which is to inform and educate. However, they need to give information that raises hope and not dampen it.
Tekedia: Can we say dishing out figures of magnitude has the tendency of causing and increasing mental health issues among the populace?
Opeyemi: Yes, it has the tendency of causing and increasing mental health issues like Anxiety, Panic and even depression. The first thing people are seeing is the number of confirmed cases and they can be like what? For instance, when the figures were still in double digit, I couldn’t sleep for nights, I got edgy and wanted to be alone despite living with my family. It was as if, we are not making any progress as a people. Then I was pricked to look at the discharged figures but then, it wasn’t easy.
Tekedia: Since it is obvious, we can have that, as a social entrepreneur and director of a nonprofit organization that deals with mental issues among the women in Nigeria, how would you describe communicating issues around the virus using sensational approach?
Opeyemi: This is not a product or a new organisation. Covid-19 is a serious issue and so it doesn’t call for sensationalism. Covid-19 is not a dinner party, a luncheon, a brand unveiling. I understand that people still want to be happy despite all, describing Covid-19 as a joke is not funny because people are dying, jobs are being lost, economic indices and projections are somewhat not favourable and that is not funny. The more sensational we get about Covid-19, the less serious people who take it to be. Communication has to be filled with empathy.
Tekedia: What are your views on the people’s call for timely mental health care for the survivors and their family members in Nigeria?
Opeyemi: Better late than never. It is a good call. This period, I have had doses of anxiety and trying not slip into depression. The question is, what template or programmes do we have for mental health. Kudos to Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative (MANI) but what we have in Nigeria presently is not enough. Thank God survivors are not named except for individuals who will like to be named. If we have the facilities to help survivors and their family members cope post Covid-19 discharge, it is a good one. Proper counselling, regular checkups (calls) among others. I believe it is the way to go because there is not health without mental health.
Tekedia: To the majority of Nigerians, who exchanged views with us, mental healthcare should be run along with the treatment of the affected persons, especially recovered people should be placed on mental health services because they have been distressed during the treatment period. What is your take on this?
Opeyemi: Yes, just like we are advocating for mental health care for mothers after delivery. It can be running side by side, especially for those who have shown signs of mental health issue in isolation or while undergoing treatment. Frontliners should be trained to communicate with the patients and ask questions as it also relates to the patient’s mental health so that you know who really needs it. Some patients might not want to be treated as a mental illness patient because of the perception about mental illness, however through proper communication and observation, it can be detected and help can be provided.
Tekedia: What are the possible factors that could contribute to mental health issues among healthcare workers exposed to the virus?
Opeyemi: It also has to be voluntary; you cannot coerce people to take treatment for what they don’t understand or don’t want to associate with. If any survivor shows signs of anxiety, panic or even depression, there is a way to go about it.
Tekedia: What is your observation about protection of healthcare workers on the frontline?
Opeyemi: Fatigue because of lack of manpower so many of them have to work round the clock. Uncertainty of whether they will also be infected/anxiety, non-availability of PPE, lack of trust in the system, state of health of such individuals/workers, bureaucratic nature our public institution etc. I really haven’t been in touch with health workers first hand. The last information I got about a friend who is isolating when someone tested positive to covid-19 in unit shows that, the level of their protection is very low and not encouraging. I belong to a group where a medical doctor’s post shows how anxious they are and am like if a doctor is sharing stuff like this, then they really must be afraid or scared.
Tekedia: What is message to individuals and businesses as the virus continues its spread through community transmission?
Opeyemi: The message to individuals and businesses is that once there is life, there is hope. Stay safe and adhere to the health guidelines at this time; wash your hands with water and soap, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer, clean surfaces with disinfectant. Do your very best to stay safe. Call appropriate authorities if you detect anything.