The SP/ILORIN, NIGERIA: The scent of new books; words coming together to form sentences while her mind creates images gave Garba Khadijah a sense of joy. Khadijah, a final-year student of Biochemistry at Kwara State University used to be a voracious reader whose eyes would lit up upon the discovery of something new. Whenever she was in the company of her friends, she would feel joy flowing through her.
All of a sudden, the tides began to change and her cheerful persona began to pave way for apathy. She felt numb and emotionless towards activities she once felt joy for. At first, Khadijah could not tell if it was the fatigue and stress that came from her academic workload, or if it was something else that influenced her withdrawal. She also could not discern if it was just a phase that would eventually pass.
“I felt I was just existing and I would feel numb towards everything,” she says. “Life no longer had meaning to me. The zeal I had to do things was not there anymore and it began affecting me negatively.”
These are symptoms of depression, Phillip Dimka, a psychologist and trauma counsellor confirmed to The SolutionsPaper in an interview.
An estimated 60 million people suffer from mental illnesses in Nigeria, but only about 10 percent of this population have access to professional assistance due to a shortage of mental health practitioners and the high cost of mental therapy among other factors.
Asides from showing signs of being depressed, Khadijah said that she also had panic attack episodes and anxiety.
After Khadijah’s symptoms persisted for a year, a friend introduced her to Renovaré Mental Health Initiative (MHI) and she commenced therapy shortly afterward, “my counsellor is very calm, gentle and understanding,” she notes.
“Even when I did not have the will to continue with sessions or do the assignments he gave me, he was still patient and would always check up on my wellbeing. I was also referred to the hospital because I was advised to combine therapy with medication”, Khadijah told The SolutionsPaper.
Youths and Students are More at Risk
A United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report revealed that one in six Nigerians between the ages of 15 and 24 often feel depressed. This is the age group where many young Nigerians are pursuing tertiary education.
The number of students falling into depression has also exacerbated the rate of suicide in Nigeria as the increasing number of suicide victims usually falls under the youth demographic due to therapy being unaffordable and the high levels of stigmatisation.
According to Dinka, the psychologist, tertiary institutions often lack the adequate infrastructure required to aid learning which puts pressure on the mental health of undergraduates hence, worsening mental health issues among students in Nigeria.
Renovaré MHI is working to fill the gap through peer counselling. In 2019, Idowu Winner, 25, discovered the prevalence of mental health issues amongst young people and founded the Renovaré MHI to cater to the mental well-being of people, particularly youths and students through peer therapy and counselling.
According to Winner, every student should have the liberty to speak freely about his/her mental health without the fear of stigmatisation.
Then, a 600-level student of Medicine and Surgery at the University of Ilorin, Winner began to conceive what he terms a “mentally conscious campus” by training students within campuses to become proficient in basic counselling so they can stand as mental health first-aiders and give comfort to those affected in times of need.
“At Renovaré MHI, we are able to train people to be proficient to an extent for them to administer talking therapy, carry out mental health awareness and refer them [those affected] to other professionals at very little to no cost at all”, Winner tells The SolutionsPaper.
Finding Solace Amid Uncertainty
Growing up, *Micaiah, 18, always felt insecure about her weight and had to endure all the emotional and psychological impacts that came with verbal bullying and being called ‘fat’ by people, which made her develop low self-esteem.
*Micaiah is a student of Medical Laboratory Science at the University of Ilorin also located in Kwara, a state in the north-central region of Nigeria. During the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) strike which lasted up to 8 months in 2022, *Micaiah went home to her family.
As days spanned into weeks and weeks metamorphosed into months, she felt stuck also due to the estranged relationship she had with her mother, “It got to a point during the strike I felt I could not take it anymore. I could not recognize the person I was becoming and I did not know what I wanted. I felt I was sliding into depression,” *Micaiah told The SolutionsPaper.
Uncertain of how long the strike would last, she confided in her sister about the things that troubled her. In turn, her sister told her about Renovaré MHI and introduced her to one of its peer counsellors. Once therapy commenced in June 2022, *Micaiah began to feel at ease.
“I always felt understood during each session and felt I was in a safe zone. Over the past few months, the self-esteem issues I battled got better. Even when I feel like I have lost all the progress, they still listen.”
“Going into therapy is the best decision I ever made,” *Micaiah adds.
The Concept of Peer Counselling
Peer counselling is a form of therapy that occurs when the counsellor and the client are from the same age group and share other similar groupings and characteristics.
These characteristics may be age, education, ethnic background, size, industry, or sector. These selectively trained individuals are willing to give their time and resources to counsel their friends, classmates, colleagues, or relations.
According to Dimka, as children turn into adolescents, they begin to be more explorative and pursue their interests which makes them draw closer to their peer groups who share the same interests and experiences as them
“Because they have established relationships already, they share most of their issues with peers,” Dimka explains. “Though they may conceal what they are going through depending on the issues and personality of the individual, generally young people are more likely to be open with members of their peers.”
But then, becoming a peer counsellor at Renovaré MHI is a rigorous process.
Firstly, the initiative puts out an opening informing those interested in becoming counsellors to fill out an application form online, after which they would begin training for free. Towards the end of these training sessions, the initiative selects the trainees with the best performance to join their team of peer counsellors.
For Abdulraheem Abdulqodir, 23, one of the peer counsellors at Renovaré MHI who has always been keen on helping people around him with emotional support, making it to the final stage of basic counselling training felt like a dream come true because he felt it would further boost his knowledge of peer support.
“I feel happy and fulfilled knowing that I will be the reason someone somewhere is having a better sleep at night and is regaining control over their mental well-being,” Abdulqodir told The SolutionsPaper.
Since its inception, the initiative has trained over 100 peer counsellors and counselled even more. It has also organised mental health walks and seminars to educate people on the adverse effect of not treating mental illness.
Challenges Limiting Expansion
However, like every other organisation, the initiative has faced its share of challenges. Winner, the founder of the initiative says that they face two challenges – manpower and funding.
While the organisation wishes to expand its reach, they do not have adequate peer counsellors and funding to do so.
“Every year, we recruit new counsellors through rigorous training. We take the mental health of our patients seriously and because of this, we weed out quite a number of individuals,” Winner explains.
As regards funding, Winner tells The SolutionsPaper that they solicit funds from individuals who are interested in supporting the initiative’s vision.
Nonetheless, Winner says the organisation plans to expand its activities to every tertiary institution across the country and would achieve its goal of making mental health issues recognized.
Editor’s note: Names with asterisks * are pseudonyms and were changed to protect identities.
Editor: Zubaida Baba Ibrahim
Sub-editor: Precious Ewuji
Multimedia/video editor: Prince OLA
Olayide Oluwafunmilayo Soaga is a Freelance Journalist and a final year student of political science from the University of Ilorin. Her works have been published in Guardian UK, African Arguments, The Continent with Mail and Guardian and elsewhere. She tweets @OlayideO_Soaga.