Monday 1 January 2024

Exploring Mental Health as a Universal Human Right: Insights from The Sunshine Series' Annual Symposium 2023

By Cynthia Umeh

Interviewer: Did you attend The Sunshine Series' Annual Mental Health Symposium? 

Shades of Us: Yes! We not only attended, we were partners and screened our short film at the event. 

Interviewer: Why was it important for Shades of Us Storytelling Initiative for Africa and People of African descent (Shades Of Us) to be present at this symposium?

Shades of Us: We were present because it is a valuable opportunity for us to contribute to the discourse on mental health, collaborate with stakeholders, and use the power of storytelling to advocate for improved mental health support in African communities and for individuals of African descent.


Now let us take a comprehensive and fun journey through the key moments of this remarkable event.


The Sunshine Series hosted its Annual Mental Health Symposium on October 26, 2023, in collaboration with Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Open Minds – Young Voices, and Shades of Us. This year's theme, ‘Mental Health as a Universal Human Right: A Multi-stakeholder Perspective’, brought together a diverse group of individuals and experts to discuss the importance of mental health awareness and education in Nigeria.

Rachel Eyo set the stage with a warm welcome for Aisha Abdullahi Bubah, the founder of The Sunshine Series, to introduce the event's mission. Aisha stated that mental health is a universal right and should be accessible to all in Nigeria. She stressed that mental health should not be an exclusive concern for the elite and emphasized that “Nigeria has taken an incredible step in the signing of the Mental Health Act 2023”.

The event then transitioned to a screening of ‘The Dumps’, our short film exploring why people have suicidal ideations. This was guided by our Founder, Ramatu Ada Ochekliye. The conversion after the screening shed light on misconceptions around suicide and wealth, highlighting the lack of data and limiting factors that mask the issue within inner, underserved communities. “There is a tendency to think that suicide is a ‘rich person’ problem: however, due to the paucity of data and the combination of other limiting factors, suicide in local communities usually goes unnoticed.” Ramatu shared.

Ramatu encouraged attendees to be vigilant and attentive to the unspoken cues that may indicate someone is in distress. She stressed the importance of shining a light on communities and stories that address and support mental health. Saving lives lies in truly understanding those around us, be they family, friends, or members of our community. “The discussion on mental health must be normalized.” Ramatu ended her session.

Lennart Oestergaard, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) Resident Representative in Nigeria), delivered the keynote address. He stressed that mental health must be accessible to everyone, regardless of gender, race, or economic background, and “ one should be bankrupted for seeking mental health services”. The importance of normalizing discussions around mental health was another key takeaway. Additionally, he touched upon the societal conditioning of men and its role in the high rates of suicide among men. 

The first panel discussion, ‘Mental Health Policies, Legislation, and Access to Mental Health Services’, featured insightful contributions from panelists: Chinyereugo Onyekwere, The Sanctuary, NEEM Foundation’s Psychology Centre; Dr. Motunrayo Oyelehunnu, Consultant Psychiatrist, The Olive Prime Psychological Services, Abuja; and Jurbe Simon, CEO, Mindspire Services.

Chinyereugo highlighted the shortage of mental health practitioners and the importance of empowering community gatekeepers to provide adequate care. Advocacy emerged as a powerful tool for raising mental health awareness and creating a safe environment for service providers. 

Dr. Motunrayo Oyelehunnu discussed the progress in improving access to mental health services, especially in tertiary institutions. The implementation of the Mental Health Act 2023 and protecting the rights of those with mental health disorders were key points of discussion. An implementation roadmap was in the works to enhance mental health care in Nigeria, with a focus on integrating mental health into primary healthcare. “There is an investment fund that the Federal Ministry of Health is supposed to contribute to make mental health services more accessible.”, she shared.

Jurbe Simon shed light on the need for increased funding for mental health services. He emphasized the current disparity between funding for physical and mental health and called for a balance. Advocating for the allocation of more government funds to mental health became a central point of the discussion. “Mental health affects other areas of health. There is no health without mental health.”

In a captivating session on mental health in the workplace, Mrs. Farida Yahya, Vice President of Strategic Partnerships at Shecluded, highlighted the importance of self-assessment and seeking professional help when needed. The significance of cultivating a supportive community and guarding one's energy emerged as key takeaways. “Protect your energy. You have to be deliberate about what you let into your mind and sight.” We couldn’t help but agree more.

In the second panel, the focus was ‘Mental Health as a Universal Right in the Context of Education and Youth Mental Wellbeing’. It featured Charles Husseini (Head of Premier International School), Heather Bodie (Executive Artistic Director at Erasing the Distance),  Jamilu Mamman (COO at Impact, Technology, Innovation, and Sustainability for Global Development), and Joane Patience Atuhaire (MWF Alumna).

Charles Husseini addressed the triggers of mental health issues. He emphasized the debilitating impact of stigma and stereotypes, which often shroud mental health problems in silence. Charles highlighted the distressing prevalence of bullying, not confined to physical harm but also wielded through hurtful words. He championed the importance of speaking up and the need for functional and effective mental health services. “Creating awareness is a bold step to take in ensuring people know about mental health issues.”

Joane Patience Atuhaire added a crucial layer to the conversation, underscoring the significance of considering societal context when addressing mental health. She encouraged the adaptation of mental health projects to the unique needs of communities. Joane advocated for leveraging social media and technology to tackle mental health issues, especially in less economically sound regions. She highlighted the role of peer groups in offering vital social support. Her rallying cry was that, "Individuals and institutions need to leverage social media and technology to solve issues around mental health.”

Mamman Jamilu joined the chorus, emphasizing the need for orientation and religious tolerance when addressing mental health. His insights underscored the necessity of nurturing an inclusive environment for discussions surrounding mental well-being. “We need to enhance sensitization and religious tolerance in addressing mental health issues.”

Heather Bodie brought storytelling to the forefront. She stressed the importance of teaching students to understand the connection between their emotions and bodily sensations. Heather urged children to feel comfortable approaching their parents with their concerns, knowing they have their unwavering support. “There are so many new conversations about mental health. Very few people grew up having these conversations about mental health issues in their homes.” Indeed!

The third panel was as enlightening as the first two. It focused on ‘Mental Health, Human Rights, and Disability Policies’, and the panelists included Christine Bestman, the Mental Health Thematic Lead at The Leprosy Mission Nigeria; Kabati Ishaya, YKAF International; and Daniel Van Sant, The Harkin Institute.

Daniel Van Sant celebrated the growing recognition of mental health in workplaces and schools. He called for active participation in creating awareness and breaking down barriers. Mental health issues, he emphasized, do not discriminate, affecting people of all backgrounds and ages. Daniel passionately advocated for individuals to come forward and address their mental health challenges. 

Kabati Ishaya's poignant words emphasized the importance of quality mental health services. He warned against the potential relapse when individuals discontinue treatment and stressed the need for affordability and accessibility in mental health care. “Mental health treatments are not affordable and accessible to most people, and this needs to be addressed.”

Christine Bestman pointed out the lack of integration of mental health into primary health care. This disconnect makes it challenging for primary health care workers to provide adequate mental health services to those in need. “There’s no integration of mental health in primary health care, which makes it hard for primary health care workers to provide mental health services to people.” she rounded off.

The symposium's panels delved deep into the intricacies of mental health, offering a wealth of knowledge and insights. The passionate discussions and calls for action left attendees inspired to continue advocating for mental health as a universal right and a critical component of our well-being.

A powerful spoken word performance by Pelemo Ava Nyajo tackled mental health and suicidal thoughts, offering a message of hope.

The Sunshine Series' Annual Mental Health Symposium was a refreshing and educative event that emphasized mental health as a universal human right. It provided a platform for meaningful discussions, insights, and recommendations on how to improve mental health in Nigeria. The importance of normalizing mental health conversations and ensuring accessibility for all was a central theme throughout the event. Mental health is a concern that affects everyone, and events like these play a crucial role in advocating for positive change.

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