Nigerian charity creates pilot program tackling stigma, barriers around mental illness and addiction
The Nigerian London and Area Association (NALA) is implementing a community-based strategy first developed in Zimbabwe to help racialized populations deal with mental illness and addiction.
On Sunday, a group of 30 volunteers gathered at the Optimist Community Center in North London to receive training in a form of problem-solving therapy (PST) called the Friendship Bench approach. The approach is designed to help people learn how to support someone who may be experiencing mild to moderate depression and anxiety.
NALA’s Friendship Bench coordinator Henry Orewa said NALA was looking for a way to engage with its members about mental illness following the death of a 26-year-old Nigerian migrant from a drug overdose in January 2021.
He said the single mother of the promising young musician had experienced poor mental health upbringing and a lack of access to mental health services for her son.
“When he lost his life, his mother came to us and told us it was the best time for us to start talking about helping others,” said Orewa, who learned about the Friendship Bench program through to his master’s degree in public health at Western University.
“She gladly wanted us to use her son as a pilot to start helping people. And that’s where we started and that’s when we decided to talk to Friendship Bench, who was very useful.”
Sunday’s session was one of five taking place in May. Upon completion, participants will receive additional training and education through the Canadian Mental Health Association. Orewa said he hopes the program will eventually be offered on an ongoing basis in London and beyond.
This could help fill a gap, according to participant Dana Elsaleh of the Muslim Resource Centre, who said she has experienced a lack of mental health programs aimed at new immigrants and racialized communities.
“Usually we try to wash away the emotions, we try to change the subject, but letting people talk and letting people be in touch with themselves and in touch with exactly what they’re feeling, it’s not easy. “, said Elsaleh.
“And we need the skills. And when I know that’s one of the skills that I’m going to learn by joining this program, it was like one of the most important things that I came to and I joined to learn these skills because, yes, we need them in our community.”
During the session, participants discussed the stigmas that can keep racialized people from talking about the global issue of mental health and addiction, and ways to overcome them. They also discussed difficulties in navigating the mental health care system when help is needed, such as language barriers and racial bias.
Mental health, a common topic emerging from the pandemic
Through the Friendship Bench training, they learned to ask a series of questions that prompt respondents to assess their own mental health and come to a point where they can seek help in finding additional support.
“We don’t want people to get sick before they get help,” said Dr Ruth Verhey, head of the International Friendship Bench. “The way I understand Canada, being a country that’s so open to people, I think it’s important to take people where they are and empower them to overcome those barriers.”
NALA General Secretary Olabode Desire said he noticed a small community being forged from a difficult but necessary conversation.
“Everyone is going to have mental health issues or challenges at different times in their lives,” Desire said. “Coming from the pandemic, mental health is what we’re all talking about now and this program is the right thing at this point.”