By Chris Onuoha
Nigeria-born Akindotun Merino is a professor of psychology at the Argosy University, California, US. Merino, who has zeal for mental wellness, is County Commissioner for Behavioural Health in California where she has resided for many years.
Founder of African Mental Health Alliance and President, JARS Group of Organisations, the author of many books was in Lagos where she had an evidence-based workshop tagged ‘From Trauma to Triumph’.
We had an encounter with her.
What was your childhood experience like and how has it affected your choice of career?
My childhood experience was a mixture of fantasy and turbulence. I grew up in Lagos, had my primary and secondary education here and also went to the University of Lagos before I migrated to the United States where I currently reside. I lost my mother when I was very young; she died two weeks after having a baby. I cried for about two years after her death. I used to be very introverted. I was afraid I would die too. Then I used to have this reoccurring dream for about five years about a woman, Aduke, with mental health issues. I greatly wanted to help her.
When I grew up, I forgot about this but that sort of shaped who I am today. Losing my mother in such a tragic manner gradually made me a teacher to children with diverse emotional and mental health challenges. Some had witnessed their parents being shot while some had been victims of maltreatment and rape. I tried to find solutions to their problems; that was when I knew I needed to get special training for this.
Right now, I am a trained educator with PhD degree in psychology. I am also a pastor. As a pastor, I observed that here in Nigeria, we focus so much on the devil and forget about the real issues. In the Bible, Jesus talked about the keys to the kingdom. Here the key to our emotions have not been used by the church itself. This key is what I am trying to give to people because you’ve got to have the key to mental health to proceed to the key of salvation.
What I really want Nigerians to take from my effort on this project is the need for systemic structural change. As a nation, we need to have different organisations that are responsible for mental health. We need to have an alliance. We need to have agencies that keep data of how many people are suffering from depression nationally. We also need to know how many have died from depression.
You’ve just had a fourth workshop in Nigeria; tell us about it…
What I did at the last workshop was to provide educational training for different organisations on organisational leadership and management with emphasis on mental health; trauma. That was very important because the mental health of an individual determines the success and prosperity of any organisation or nation. A person who is wounded mentally and physically cannot work productively.
Its focus seems to point at depression which is a major problem in Nigeria today, with suicide on the rise…
This is not coincidental. Rather, it is very strategic. I thought this would be a good time to start talking about the trauma we all face every day. For example, when you are stock in Lagos traffic for about 4 to 6 hours, your productivity is limited. It puts you in a state of high stress, releasing adrenaline. Such situations are not prohibited but when they become constant in life, your health gets affected. At that point, many things happen; your body is basically out of balance. I believe we can start by reducing the wrong stigma attached to mental health and address some situations that even policy makers overlook. That’s why I am here.
Depression, according to experts, is a slow killer. As a psychologist, what is the way out?
Nigeria does not have in place adequate mechanisms to battle depression. We have 250 psychiatrists in a country of about 200 million people. When you look at that ratio, it means we are not taking mental health seriously. Until we begin to focus on these issues, spend money on community mental health and train people on psychological first aid, then we can’t get it right. Ordinarily, the normal first aid help usually comes handy when you get an injury before going to hospital. But for emotional and mental health issues, we don’t. We need to train regular volunteers to handle the sources of mental disorders in families and communities.
One of the variables we can use to prevent suicide is connection. Every single person who has tried to commit suicide lacks communication. You will always hear them say ‘I felt alone, I had no way out’. Creating connections will reduce the suicide rate. Some people are still going to commit suicide anyway, but it can be reduced. Secondly, we are to practice empathy, rather than sympathy. We can begin to identify risk factors. For instance, if somebody is struggling with mental health issues—showing weird signs of fatigue, resentment or self alienation and other things, we shouldn’t just abandon them.
Have you observed Nigerians hardly want to visit a psychiatrist?
In the case of depression, you don’t need a psychiatrist. It is the job of a psychologist. A psychiatrist will deal with a major psychosis but the psychologist who deals with the regular stress and trauma comes in handy. They are trained in different fields. Most psychologists in the country usually complain of low patronage compared to their counterparts abroad. The issue is that there should be a global campaign to sensitise people to know that mental health is a part of your physical health.
How best can depression caused by personal attitude and interpersonal relations be averted?
Anger is one major challenge that people struggle with. Managing emotions is vital here. We should stop reacting on impulse. When you react abruptly, you release negative emotions. The first thing one needs to do is “Retreat, Rethink and Respond.” That is the most creative and innovative way to response to circumstances. It seems very simple, but it’s hard. If you can do that, you save yourself from negative emotions and mental health challenges therein.
All the sudden reaction to traffic gridlock, bad roads, loss of appointment, financial hardship and many others, will not be there if you apply the simple strategy. What the body does at that moment is release hormones that should be very adaptive.
Mindfulness is another strategy we teach people to apply as self-care. Most people spend their time chasing the past rather than the future. Mindfulness allows you to be in the present and to focus on the future. Don’t bring the baggage of the past into the present; it disrupts the future. You can only learn from the past and move on.