Nigerian Mental Health Advocate Chude Jideonwo Shares Practical Ways Of Coping During COVID

Nigerian Mental Health Advocate Chude Jideonwo Shares Practical Ways Of Coping During COVID
Image courtesy of Chude Jideonwo

We speak with the founder of Joy Inc. about the mental health challenges facing Nigerians, how many have managed to find effective ways to cope, and the online resources available to the community.

Never in our lifetimes have we experienced a pandemic of this gravity. As COVID-19 cases rise in Nigeria, Nigerians aren't just worried about getting the virus, they are also concerned about a host of other challenges: our lack of efficient and effective healthcare—which is overwhelmed even without a pandemic—the lack of appropriate data, and the high levels of poverty and illiteracy in the country that make it difficult to enforce the strategies that will enable us to handle the pandemic and keep it under control.

In a bid to understand how Nigerians are dealing with mental health challenges now, on the ground, due to the pandemic—which has led to a lockdown restricting movement and also social distancing rules—we spoke with Nigerian journalist, lawyer and mental healthcare advocate Chude Jideonwo, who is the founder of Joy Inc. He shared insights from his experiences with The Joy Inc., which he founded in 2016 to help young people going through mental and emotional challenges. He aimed to help provide young Nigerians with tools to help navigate the world around them.

Humans, by our very nature, are social animals—and Nigerians are top on the list of being social, holding parties, owambes and events such as religious gatherings are the norm and are often used as a means to unwind. But given the current reality, these events can no longer happen. Considering that physical and social connections play a major role in mental wellbeing, it's necessary to explore effective methods of coping with the changes brought on by the pandemic.

We spoke with Jideonwo about what can be done to help Nigerians cope. He shared valuable resources and practical self-help tips that can be useful in these difficult times. Read our conversation below.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

What do you think is the current mental state of most people right now?

I wish I could gather data on it. The truth is I have actually been rather impressed based on what I see. No credible mental health practitioner that I know and work with closely has reported a marked increase in reports of mental health challenges or even Covid specific mental health challenges.

I had expected a 50/50 chance but the thing about mental health is that you can't really predict what is going to happen so I think that the fact that people have been so connected and so engaged online has created a sense of community and connection that has made it easy for people. It is amazing, I think we underestimate how much this online connection helps people. People have had a lot of things to learn, people have had ways to reach people because the real thing that leads to depression is social isolation and people have not been isolated. People have been connected. In Nigeria, Instagram live has been busy, people have been on Zoom, people have been engaged and not just entertainment but meaningful connection, I think that if we drill down, that might be why people have been able to cope with this so well.

"The biggest mental health story from this crisis is the fact that the mental health interventions that practitioners have been doing across the past few years have worked."

I think that right now, the tension is dissipating from the initial hysteria surrounding the outbreak, are people more or less getting used to the new normal?

Well, yes, the human mind has the capacity to adjust without commensurate mental well-being, that means that people can physically and economically adjust while still struggling with depression and anxiety—it is like the way people function after they lose a loved one. A person can lose a loved one, not be handling it well, but still able to go to work the next day while sad or depressed so the human capacity to keep going is endless. Human beings know how to keep going physically. I never doubted that human beings can adapt to a new normal, human beings always do. What has been impressive is that mentally, emotionally and spiritually, we seem to have adapted as well because there has been no report of a crisis of despair so to speak because of coronavirus and I think that is a good thing. I mean I am one of the critics of the effects of social media and of technology but this is one time when technology seems to have served us well.

What birthed the idea of your talk series 'With Chude'?

The tagline is 'Let's Be Human Together'. I recorded these shows two years ago, when I started Joy Inc. the idea was that one of the most powerful ways that people can connect is through story-telling, if people are able to share with other people who are going through the same things, it is easier to connect with people through stories than to connect through anything else. I wasn't ready to share them with the public, I just thought I wasn't personally in the space where I wanted to engage with the public. It just felt to me like it was finally time to engage the public on the shows. I call it intuition because it just so happens that it coincided with the pandemic.

I'd like you to share some of the insights that you have gotten from the people you spoke with on the show that might be useful for people during this time.

It is that people are going through stuff. You never know what people are going through until you sit with them, but the vast majority of people are going through or have gone through valleys of emotional, mental and spiritual crisis. It is the nature of reality. It is like the interview I had with Ronke Bamisedun. While I always thought she had a fabulous life, to sit down and hear the things that she was going through in her family life with her parents and all of that was remarkable. The things that unify us the most are those negative terrible personal experiences and you are more likely to connect with people through that than with anything else.

It seems there's been more awareness in Nigeria around mental health issues and seeking professional help and people. Would you say people are seeking out more non-religious ways of dealing with such challenges?

I do know that when it comes to mental health, many educated, digitally connected young people are looking outside of religion for answers, I can make a bet on that and that's because religion hasn't helped, especially the kind of religion we promise here which is very 'God will do this for you' oriented and it doesn't answer the question that mental health poses.

How can people find hope in the middle of this pandemic?

Research says hope is a cognitive function. Emotions can function as two things and we have synthesized the research at Joy Inc. Many emotions are both feelings and cognitive functions that means fear as a feeling is not a bad thing, because it enables you run away when a snake is there or accelerate faster when a robber is chasing your car, but it can also be a cognitive function where you see everybody as an enemy. When negative emotion becomes your operating system rather than your thermometer, it becomes a problem.

The flip side is the case with positive emotion, hope as a feeling – there is a lot of research about optimism and hope and sometimes they interchange the word, but the cognitive function of hope is when you are hopeful not because of anything in particular, but because you know that when there is life, there is hope. I believe it is called the stock-dale paradox, which is acknowledging the severity of your situation, while still maintaining indomitable will that you can survive.

I think one of the reasons why people have been able to cope is this constant idea that a vaccine is coming and it has infused the world with a sense of hope. Also, the idea of agency and autonomy that we can get through this by flattening the curve, there is nothing that human beings love more than feeling that there is something we can do about this situation. It is when there is nothing we can do about the situation that we now collapse into despair.

In ways that we can't imagine, the pandemic is still affecting us, how do you think it can be managed such that we don't suffer PTSD when we finally have it under control?

The point of power is always in the present moment. One of the ways to prevent PTSD is to help people process the moment more mindfully and more consciously. The reason people have post-traumatic grief is because the grief wasn't processed while in it, they bottled up their emotions and researchers say "emotions need motion,"—if we are able to keep people expressing and engaging their emotions, then we can manage the situation.

The biggest mental health story from this crisis is the fact that the mental health interventions that practitioners have been doing across the past few years have worked. The investment in teaching people how to process their emotion, in telling people their emotions matter and that it is okay to be depressed, or anxious has worked—such that people are more comfortable expressing their feelings. Do you know how powerful it is to have young people go online and say "I feel like I am about to kill myself, I need somebody to reach out to me?" It's powerful because the alternative is for the person to kill themselves without reaching out. People have been taught that it is okay to say you're suicidal—that speaking out makes all the difference between the person who has suicidal thoughts and the person who actually kills themselves. We have been sharing stories and sharing conversations that have begun to normalize mental and emotional health challenges.

Image courtesy of Chude Jideonwo

What are the resources that you think might help people?

When it comes to self-management of mental health, nothing has really changed. We have developed medicines for anxiety and depression, but the most effective ways of handling some of these are still self-help tools and those tools have existed for [over] three thousand years. Things like cognitive journaling and analytic meditation. When I think of it as a psychological tool, cognitive journaling is the same thing as analytic meditation from Bhuddist traditions, the idea of sitting down and looking deep within and asking "what led to this?" You keep asking why till you get the original why of existence and when you get there, you realize that there is really no problem. You keep writing why you are feeling what you are feeling, you engage your feelings and your thoughts until you have them under control.

One of the things that helped me through my major depressive episode in 2016 was my own analytic meditation. Going into myself and asking "why am I feeling sad?" Katie Byron in her book Loving What Is, has this series of four questions that are miraculous and at Joy Inc. we simplified them into three: What am I feeling? Am I feeling sad? What am I thinking? Because they are the thinking processes that lead to our feelings

Mentally Aware Nigeria is another organization working in the mental health space in Nigeria and they were able to provide some statistics, according to Anthony Ojukwu who is the head of counseling, he says "in March, we had over 200 cases/clients but in the month of April we had almost 500 clients. Prior to the pandemic, I got an average of fifty calls a month, but with this pandemic, I have had over a hundred and fifty calls a month coming to our hotline. These calls come mostly in the middle of the night and a lot of them are people who are having panic attacks in the middle of the night due to fear and the first thing I hear is someone crying," he adds. But he still agrees that Nigerians are doing quite well because there is more awareness regarding mental health challenges, which might be as a result of the awareness over the years.

He also agrees that the internet has been of immense help and an alternative means of connection, he says "video calls are a blessing to us at this time from the universe." Knowing when enough is enough is very important, knowing when to take time off when it gets overwhelming, know when to not let words that a stranger is saying from the comfort of their house affect you. Therapy is a way to prevent post pandemic PTSD, talking about it helps healing. After this pandemic, people should embrace therapy, counseling, even though there is still some form of stigmatization against mental health. A lot of people see therapy or counseling as someone insinuating that they have a problem but it really is just about talking, about us as humans not being isolated. When people find out that I am not in this alone and therapy is for everyone, subconsciously, your mind starts to heal. Spending time with your loved ones would help a lot, also kindness is so underrated, when we are kind towards one another in this period, it can actually help you. Once in a while, check up on your friends, try out new things. Mentally Aware Nigeria has a website projectcovid with resources to help cope easily.