Dr. Gbonjubola Abiri is a Consultant Psychiatrist, Managerial Psychologist, Professional Speaker and the Medical Director of Tranquil and Quest Behavioral health, Lagos. She is co-author of the book Mental Health in the Workplace. A Fellow of the West Africa College of Physicians (WACP), member of Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), the Employee Assistance Professional Association (EAPA) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA), she has received trainings from the King’s College London, the University of Washington and the prestigious Harvard University, Boston USA. Passionate about research in child and adolescent forensic, women’s mental health, and occupational mental health, Abiri is driven by the holistic view to health. She also uses her knowledge in Psychiatry and Psychology to influence and maximize effectiveness and productivity in the workplace via the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). A Director of Women’s Mental Health at the ASIDO Foundation, she currently volunteers with the Lagos State COVID-19 Psychosocial Response Team in the fight against the pandemic. She also works with the THR media, as a Consultant Psychiatrist, as well as Sexual and Gender Based Violence Advocate. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, she shares her drive for mental health and advocacy.
What endeared you to psychiatry?
The vulnerability of the young was the first source of fascination that spurred my interest in Psychiatry. As a child, I had suffered from Asthma; I had many attacks resulting from my frailty as a child and my inability to properly care for myself.
When I presented to Doctors, they barely had the patience to allow me express my symptoms or how exactly I felt. I was challenged to bridge that divide by becoming a ‘listening Doctor.’ I also noticed that as I grew older, people found it comfortable to speak and discuss with me concerning the issues that bothered them. They often expressed their relief after having such conversations.
You currently champion the cause of mental health, what led to this passion?
My passion for mental health was inspired by the need to fill the gap of lack of care for mentally ill persons. Mental health is clearly not given the attention that it deserves, in spite of the associated mortality, morbidity and reduced quality of life. The general perception, attitudes, language and behaviour towards persons with mental health conditions are often those of shame, stigma and discrimination. These attitudes impact negatively on the patient’s perception of themselves and their help-seeking behaviour.
Mental health is extremely important as it has impact on all aspects of our health; our ability to engage in productive activities, cope with the normal stresses of life, contribute our quota to the environment we live in and engage in thriving relationships. We all have a role to play in ensuring mental health for all.
How would you describe your journey so far?
My journey has been a beautifully challenging and rewarding one. My father, who is a Medical Doctor himself, inspired me early enough in life to toe the path of saving lives. In medical school, I took an elective course in 500 Level in Psychiatry at the University College Hospital, Ibadan. It was not commonplace at the time to leave school to go for such a course, but I insisted on having that exposure.
While there, I met one of my greatest influences in person of Prof Olayinka Omigbodun. Working with patients has been extremely rewarding as lives are impacted. My work ensures that patients live their best lives in spite of their illnesses. My work has ensured that mental health is spotlighted, and that mental health conversations are normalised. It has ensured that suicides are prevented; mental illnesses are well managed, and that parental, familial and marital relationships are restored. It has indeed been so fulfilling seeing this turn around. The success stories make the journey worthwhile and fulfilling; this of course makes me want to do more.
Could you share with us some of your activities in your cause for stable mental health?
I am involved and engaged in creating mental health awareness, advocacy and education via my social media platforms and on various print and electronic media. I make use of cartoons, animations and illustrations in indigenous languages to discuss pertinent mental health issues.
In May last year, which is the Mental Health month, I embarked on a 31-for-31 day campaign where distinguished personalities across different walks of life discussed mental health issues in order to enlighten others based on their experiences and expertise. I utilise my expertise and serve as member of the advisory council of Joy Inc, Director of Women’s Mental Health at Asido Foundation and co-founder of the THR media, which focuses on survivors of Sexual and Gender Based violence. I also give mental health talks to a diverse population including children, adolescents, women, men, religious and cooperate organisations on mental health and wellbeing. I currently run a social media series called the ‘#waitaminutewithDrG’ where I deliver pertinent mental health tips in a minute. I also serve as Consultant Psychiatrist and Medical Director at Tranquil and Quest Behavioral Health, a premier mental health and substance abuse facility.
In your years of practice, what do you consider issues women face that affect their mental health?
Quite a number of factors impact on women and their mental health causing pressures. Some of these include women’s multiple roles, personal and societal expectations regarding marriage, childbirth, parenting and career, exposure to trauma in childhood, domestic violence, body image issues, issues of self-esteem, self perception and self doubt as well as severe life events that cause a sense of loss, inferiority and humiliation. These factors increase the risk of mental health problems such as mood disorders, anxiety disorders, sleep, eating and sexual problems, psychosis, personality disorders as well as substance use disorders.
What is your view about the appreciation of psychiatry in Nigeria especially as it relates to mental health and mental illness?
Mental health and mental health conditions are not given the attention they deserve as they are looked at largely through the lens of religion and culture, which have continued to cloud our judgment with ignorance, stigma and discrimination. In Nigeria and even in 2021, individuals are unlikely to visit healthcare professionals for care at the first instance of a mental illness. Instead, they would visit religious organisations, as the belief is that mental illnesses are as a result of spiritual attacks.
Science has however dispelled most of these myths and misconceptions, as there is more awareness and understanding of the pathophysiology of mental health conditions with causation being linked to biological, psychological and social sources. This is why I have continued to engage in enlightenment, as it is necessary to dispel the myths surrounding mental health and mental health care, as well as change the health seeking behaviour.
Share with us your activities as a volunteer with the Lagos state COVID-19 psychosocial response team?
I have always enjoyed volunteering for causes I am passionate about. It’s such as altruistic act and a way to give back. I have always been motivated by John Bunyan’s saying that ‘you have not lived until you have done something for someone who can never repay you’ and so when the call to volunteer for the COVID-19 psychosocial team came, I heeded it.
Our work in the psychosocial team was largely to provide emotional and psychological support via the telephone for patients from the point of testing positive, to isolating at home or being treated at the hospital, to when they were discharged and continued to need psychological support. We also provided psychological support and training to frontline healthcare workers who were in charge of the patients.
What is your advice to women trying to find a balance in their lives?
Harmony is the new balance. Trying to put too much effort into ‘balancing’ their lives such that work, career, managing relationships and other interests and hobbies get equal parts is not realistic. While work-life balance sees work and life as equally distinct parts, that co-exist and thrive separately, work-life harmony encourages that you look at all areas as part of a whole. It also encourages that you work at synergising all the parts.
It is important for women to identify the areas of their lives and find what work-life harmony means to them personally. Don’t be pressured by other women who seem to have it all together. Be encouraged by them, but not feel inadequate Just ensure that you are a continuous work in progress and that you also make efforts to outsource and ask for help when needed.
How do you balance family and career fronts?
Creating a harmony between family and career, especially in a field that is highly demanding, and lacking in professionals can be indeed tough. The occurrence of the COVID-19 increased rates of mental health conditions and domestic violence. It also led to an increment in virtual meetings, and working from home (WFH) creating a work-hour blur.
Interestingly, my work didn’t reduce and so while everyone was at home during the quarantine period, my team and I worked everyday to ensure our patients got the best care. We also had the added work of doing online sessions. This of course had its effects on personal and family life.
It takes a deliberate decision, effort and action to ensure that I am able to spend time engaging in fun activities and creating memories with my family. There is a lot of dedication to ensure that they also get quality time and attention from me. Learning to outsource certain duties and not feeling like I am superwoman and have to do everything also helps. Plus I carry my family along with my work and decisions as this ensures they are in the loop about my decisions. And of course, sometimes, I shut out the world, by turning off my devices so that I can be mindful and enjoy the seemingly little things and the joy they bring.
Interview By Ijeoma Thomas-Odia for Guardian