Meet the woman giving mental health a voice in Nigeria

Written by Lauren Geall

28-year-old Hauwa Ojeifo is the founder of She Writes Woman, a woman-led organisation helping to provide survivors of gender-based violence and those living with mental health conditions in Nigeria access to confidential support. After winning the Global Goals Awards’ Changemaker award for her groundbreaking work, Stylist spoke with Ojeifo to find out more about her mission to give people struggling with their mental health a voice.

When Hauwa Ojeifo first started speaking about her experiences with bipolar disorder and depression on her blog She Writes Woman, it wasn’t intended to be anything more than an outlet for her mental health.

A survivor of sexual and domestic abuse, Ojeifo started the She Writes Woman movement in April 2016 after years of extreme mood cycles caused by her bipolar disorder led to a near suicide attempt. 

Four years later, She Writes Woman has grown into a woman-led organisation helping to give mental health a voice in Nigeria, where there is still a lot of stigma for seeking help for and talking about mental health. Ojeifo’s organisation works to counter this problem by providing survivors of gender-based violence and those living with mental health conditions access to confidential psychosocial support and counselling.

Now, after years of hard work and several groundbreaking achievements – in February 2020, Ojeifo became the first woman and person to testify before the Nigerian parliament on the rights of people with mental health conditions and psychosocial disabilities in the country’s bid to pass its first mental health law – Ojeifo has another accolade to add to her belt: a Changemaker Award. 

The award, which is part of Goalkeepers and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s fifth annual Global Goals Awards, celebrates the achievements of an individual who has inspired change using their personal experience and/or from a position of leadership – something 28-year-old Ojeifo has been doing for many years.

To celebrate her win, Stylist spoke with Ojeifo to discuss her work with She Writes Woman, and find out more about the problems faced by people with mental health conditions in Nigeria, and what change she’d like to see over the next couple of years. 

Could you tell us a bit about your work?

“She Writes Woman empowers people who actually live with mental health conditions to tell their own stories, create their own solutions and advocate for their own rights.

“We do that mostly by creating safe spaces for people. So over the last four years we’ve had a helpline, we’ve had support groups and we’ve had outreach activities that reach the vulnerable and marginalised people with mental health conditions in Nigeria.

“Over the last two years we have also been on the frontlines of advocating for a human rights-respecting mental health law in Nigeria, together with our partners at Human Rights Watch.”

Why is mental health awareness and advocacy so important to you?

“I think for me, personally, it just stems from my own personal experience, having been diagnosed with bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorder, and having seen what it’s like to live with it in an environment where stigma thrives and going through the pre-diagnosis, diagnosis and post-diagnosis stages. All of that gives me a bit of a bird’s eye view on the challenges and peculiarities of living with a mental health condition. So really that’s what drives me – it’s just realising that I don’t have to be quiet about my story.

“First I used my organisation as an outlet for my own experiences with mental health, and then it began to become this movement where people started to connect because of shared experience. And from there we have built and continue to drive that. 

“I think beyond me, it’s realising how integral mental health is for our general wellbeing, and how we have, for a very long time, somewhat neglected it. So it’s always important that when we talk about mental health it’s not always about mental illness, it’s about wellness as well – we always think of the extremes, but it’s so important that we all begin to take action so that we are proactive. Mental health affects productivity, it affects efficiency – it affects people’s lives every single day, beyond just illness. So I think it’s important that we begin to have those conversations every day.”

Has the pandemic shaped or changed your activism in any way?

“Our mission still remains the same, but how we go about our mission has slightly changed.

“On the one hand, it’s also been a reinforcement of the systemic challenges we’re confronted with when we do our work. So we can do community activism, grassroots advocacy and all of those things, but the truth is that the system is still largely underdeveloped in terms of health care. 

“So in Nigeria, we don’t have mental health care at a primary health care level, for example. We have approximately one psychiatrist for around 1.3 million Nigerians – that’s just about 256 psychiatrists in the whole of Nigeria. So there are systemic deficiencies that we can try to improve, but they are going to be there for quite a while so we have to work with them. So this Covid-19 period really just exacerbated all of the already existing issues within the healthcare system in Nigeria.

“So we are just responding by ensuring that we’re providing virtual alternatives for many of the issues that people would typically face on a day to day, whether it was having our helpline to be a point of first response to gender-based violence survivors, or carrying out telecounselling, telemedicine and teletherapy for people with existing mental health conditions and everyday people who felt the stresses of the lockdown period with the anxiety and uncertainty.”

What do you hope to achieve over the next year now you’ve won this award?

“I think there are two things which are really paramount to me and by extension my organisation. The first is legislation. Nigeria hasn’t had a new piece of mental health legislation since 1958, and what we have in terms of policies and everyday working documents are not human rights-respecting. 

“According to those laws, people with mental health conditions, like myself, are not recognised as equal to every other person and do not have things like legal capacity. 

“So we’re just working over the next year to ensure that people with mental health conditions are fully respected, fully consulted and are included in the drafting of the mental health bill that is currently in Parliament.

“I think the other thing is really about intersectional solutions. So for example Nigeria still doesn’t have a nationwide helpline where people can call toll free, so even the most vulnerable and most marginalised can have access, because right now people can’t because of things such as call credit or internet access and things like that. So we’re looking at intersections like that to ensure mental health support is accessible, and that it’s really helpful.”

What does winning this award mean to you?

“I just always say it’s a huge validation. It’s a validation of the story that started this movement, it’s a validation of all our shared experiences as people who live with mental health conditions who tend to not be seen or heard. It’s a validation of the work that we have done continuously over the last four years.

“I think if there was ever any time that I questioned whether this work made any difference whatsoever, this award is really the answer.”

Find out more about Ojeifo and her work with She Writes Woman on their website. 

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on mental health charity Mind’s website or see the NHS’ list of mental health helplines and organisations here.

For confidential support you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email [email protected]

Images: Yagazie Emezi

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