Transforming Mental Health in Nigeria’s rural communities

Yahuza Bawage

As the eldest of six siblings, Jecinta Egbim spent her formative years in Kaduna state,Nigeria. With a passion for delving into psychological crime thrillers, honing her culinary skills, and immersing herself in evening strolls to stimulate her creativity, she embraced a diverse range of interests.

Jecinta Egbin taking students mental health lessons

Raised in a family that balanced discipline with love, Jecinta’s childhood was marked by joy until the age of six, when a traumatic incident—described by her as sexual abuse—left her feeling frightened and isolated for years. The harrowing experience affected how she saw herself and made her withdraw from social connections.

‘It messed with my whole social life. I grew up battling the thoughts of people only seeing me as a sexual object,” she recalled.

This feeling continued until 2018, when she met a friend known as Abdulmuiz Idris, who helped her understand herself and how to mend the wounds engraved on her heart. A year later, a chance came for Jecinta to find even more support. As a student pursuing a degree in Chemistry Education at the Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, she was chosen to speak on a panel about student well-being.

“That’s where I met Professor Taiwo Sheikh Abdullateef and Dr. Aisha Abdullateef,” Jecinta says. “They became my mentors, and Professor Abdullateef even became my therapist. It was a turning point in my life.”

Until then, Jecinta hadn’t realized how much her past affected her—and her case is hardly an isolated one. Statistics have shown that millions of Nigerians grapple with mental health challenges, with approximately 20% of the population experiencing conditions such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. 

These conditions create a ripple effect, affecting not only individuals but also impacting families and various professions, including healthcare, education, and finance.

Bridging the gap

With therapy sessions from the Professor Abdulateef, Jecinta began to heal and a burning desire to help others spurred her interest to start the Friends Advocacy for Mental Health Initiative, or FAM Initiative, in October 2020.

As a youth-led non-profit, FAM Initiative strives to bring quality mental health awareness and services to rural communities and schools. 

Driven by the need for holistic mental health advocacy for young people, particularly adolescents, Jecinta and her team launched the Adolescents Safe Haven club project in secondary schools across Northwestern Nigerian communities.

The first mental health session carried out by the FAM Initiative under the umbrella of the Adolescent Safe Haven club at Jpec Chimel Academy Zaria. Photo Credit_ FAM Initiative.

“Our Adolescents Safe Haven Club was born out of the need to offer preventive care in Secondary schools. It wasn’t hard picking beneficiaries as at the time we started because we were focused on adolescents within the Zaria metropolis,” Jecinta explained.

Through monthly school sessions, the initiative empowers students on their self-awareness journey. They learn mental health concepts, combat misinformation about mental illnesses, gain access to quality mental health first aid, and explore healthy coping mechanisms for managing emotional and mental stress.

More often than not, the sessions equip students to build personal resilience against anxiety, stress, and depression. Beyond awareness, the project has equipped over 300 adolescents with actionable steps to improve their mental well-being at any time.

FAM Initiative also supports schools’ staff and management in strengthening their commitment to fostering healthy lifestyles for students. This extends beyond the individual, to benefit families, communities, and Nigeria’s development.

Today, the project’s impact is evident in improved academic performance of the students, behavioral changes in and out of school, and a greater willingness to seek help.

“We have seen introverted students battling depression receive care, children with low self-esteem gain confidence, and many more positive transformations,” Jecinta said.

Success stories

Peculiar Samuel wasn’t always the confident young woman she is today. Frustration, depression, and confusion were once frequent visitors during her teenage years. It was music that unknowingly served as her refuge during those gloomy times.

This changed when Peculiar joined the Adolescent Safe Haven club at Jpec Chimel Academy in Zaria. Through a safe space, Peculiar and other students were introduced to the importance of mental health and self-discovery.

It was like a surprise to me when I found out about the importance of mental health in our daily lives. We attended sessions every Thursday and were engaged with assignments to research more about mental illnesses. We also played games and had round table discussions,” Peculiar said.

Peculiar’s dedication didn’t go unnoticed. She was elected President of the Adolescent Safe Haven club at the Jpec Chimel Academy Zaria, a role that came with both challenges and immense gratification. The responsibility to empower others with this newfound knowledge fueled her passion.

Though now an 18-year-old law student at Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, Peculiar’s legacy at Jpec Chimel Academy still shines. Occasionally, she visits the school to measure the impact the club is making in the lives of adolescent students.

“Even today, I am still exploring what makes me sad, frustrated, and depressed while figuring out my coping mechanisms. I always ask the juniors whenever I visit my old school what they learn about their mental health and it’s so encouraging to know that things are improving,” she highlighted.

Since joining the Adolescent Safe Haven club, Umar Faruq Muhammad’s life has undergone a transformation. The 19-year-old SS3 student at Jpec Chimel Academy Zaria has learned to manage his anger and navigate emotions effectively when interacting with his peers. The club sessions have also equipped him with communication skills, particularly the ability to converse respectfully with elders.

“The club helps us to differentiate right and wrong. It also teaches us how to be honest and helpful to others,” Umar said.

Across Nigeria, initiatives like a medical student raising awareness among teenagers in Taraba to a program helping Borno State’s displaced survivors navigate trauma, and a network addressing student mental health needs on Nigerian campuses, replicates FAM Initiative’s approach. Yet these aren’t isolated cases as Africans continue to create solutions to cultivate mental well-being and build productive individuals.

Beyond the hurdles

Jecinta noted lack of adequate funding as the initiative’s main challenge. Their community outreach efforts are further hampered by local misconceptions and stigma surrounding mental health care. Despite being understaffed, they are plowing ahead to raise more awareness.

“With sufficient funding, our state leaders can assemble the necessary teams to run clubs and trainings in schools throughout Nigeria,” Jecinta stated.

Motunrayo Gbenjo, a Nigerian child and adolescent counselor, acknowledges the struggle for mental health awareness across Nigerian communities. 

Many view it solely through the lens of mental illness, neglecting the broader concept of it being the obstacle hindering individuals from thriving to improve their lives and community. This limited understanding creates a sense of isolation for advocates. Those who grasp the concept are a minority and the fear of being excluded discourages open discussions about mental health issues,” Motunrayo explained.

Staff members and community volunteers from the FAM Initiative’s team, mental health educator, and executive members of the Adolescent Safe Haven club at Jpec Chimel Academy Zaria. Photo Credit_ FAM Initiative.

For Motunrayo, mental health encompasses the ability to navigate life’s stresses and contribute meaningfully to society. She emphasizes the importance of a collective effort. “With more supporters across the country. Silent advocates will be emboldened to speak up and a larger movement can educate those with limited understanding.”

Motunrayo also highlighted that by strengthening the advocacy network, Nigerians can work towards a future where mental well-being is not just understood, but actively nurtured for a thriving society.

Looking ahead, Jecinta aspires to make quality mental health care more readily available and cost-effective in Nigeria’s far-flung communities. “This year, we are launching our Maternal Mental Health Care program. With this, I see this initiative taking preventive mental health care to the next level,” she stated.

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