By Phillip Anjorin
Ayobami Felix grew up with his mother, alongside three siblings. Since his father deserted them in 2001, his mother solely sponsored his education even after he gained admission to study Performing Arts at Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko in Ondo State.
However, his mother’s health deteriorated due to work and emotional stress, leading to her death on May 26, 2018.
When Felix resumed school a few days after her mother’s burial, he responded to condolences from friends as if nothing had happened. He smiled and even cracked jokes to make people believe he had gone over the loss of his mother.
“But deep down, I was crying. My mother was one major reason behind my sanity and my ability to cope with the tedious school activities,” he recounted while sharing his story with this reporter.
“I have no one to share my sorrows with. If I do, I’ll be tagged as a coward. Imagine how I felt when a close friend called me a crybaby when I first heard the news.”
Afterwards, he drowned himself in academic activities to shift his mind from his grief but had a psychosocial breakdown at some point. He forgot things and lost connection with his close friends. He often walked alone, so no one would question his actions.
“I thought my mind was evolving until I started discovering that I don’t retain what I read. At some point, I forget some things that I plan to do later. I blamed it on procrastination, but deep inside, I knew it was not,” he said.
For Deola Akadri, a final year Philosophy student, heartbreak from a relationship — nurtured since her 100-level days — was a hard pill to swallow. She couldn’t hide her pain, and the consolatory words offered by friends weren’t enough to soothe the feeling.
“My mom knew him, and we had planned our future together. I kept replaying the memories in my head as if it’s a video after I caught him cheating on me,” she told this reporter.
The aftermath made her experience some spill-overs in her academics, thereby incurring extra expenses and additional time.
Battle in the mind
Maintaining emotional stability, for most Nigerian undergraduates, is a herculean task as they have to solely survive social activities, academics and personal wellbeing, sometimes without a guardian.
These have made anxiety disorders gain ground among Nigerian students. A 2021 study by Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc shows that this anxiety disorder has reached a prevalent level of 53.85% among university students, with more than 28% lasting for a lifetime.
On a 12-month evaluation, the study shows that it was at 23%, with social phobia ranking highest at 6.6%, specific phobia at 6.4%, agoraphobia at 4.7% and post-traumatic stress disorder at 0.9%.
According to a 2021 study on mental health and burnout among 505 medical students across 25 Nigerian schools, the most common sources of stress were study pressures (75.6%), money (52.3%) and relationships (30.1%). However, less than 5% received any help for their psychosocial distress despite a prevalence level of 54.5%.
Further findings indicated a prevalence of depression at a moderate rate of 16%, a severe level of 9.8%; anxiety at a moderate rate of 11.1% and a severe level of 17.3%, with academic burnout contributing to 68% among Nigerian undergraduates. Among 207 students in AAUA, a 2018 study even discovered that good attributes like emotional intelligence, academic motivation and self-efficacy can contribute to academic burnout.
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Help from an unlikely source
After Feranmi Fasunle — a promising 19-year-old 200-level Political Science student — committed suicide by taking Sniper in May last year, students of AAUA became more aware of the dangers of emotional instability and the need to seek help.
Unfortunately, seeking professional help from licensed therapists is a tall dream as there are none based in Akungba-Akoko as some AAUA students told this reporter, except students who found interest in offering emotional support to colleagues.
School activities had been hectic and while lazily surfing the internet at home one day, Felix — now a finalist — found Findcenter, a platform for personal development and well-being. “I think curiosity got the better of me,” he said jocularly.
The platform, according to the founders, is reputed to be “the world’s largest platform related to finding emotional well-being and self-mastery.” In its recent development exclusively for college students, after registration and identification, diverse resources on topics relating to students’ emotional well-being are made available freely for use.
These include video sessions, quotes and text materials that such students can use at their convenience and implement in daily activities.
“It’s no secret that College Students often struggle with their mental health and can have a hard time getting good services,” says Caroline Pincus, Findcenter’s former Director of Content.
“They’re under so much pressure, often on their own for the first time, having to manage time, money, sleep, nutrition, energy, and their natural curiosities about dating, sex, and what it means to be an adult,” Pincus noted.
Findcenter’s CEO, Neal Goldman said, “Our goal is to make the best content easily available, for free, to anyone who is facing challenging life situations.
“We cannot single-handedly solve the mental health crises rampant among youths. But we certainly hope to be part of the solution by giving students a lifeline, any time of the day or night, with videos, articles, podcasts, and more that address their specific mental health challenges.
“At the very least, we want them to know that they are not alone and that there is a place where they always belong.”
With funding generated from “a small group of investors eager to help people in their life’s journeys,” the platform curates content from psychological experts that address students’ concerns.
These contents are then organised for easy navigation by the students, who in turn send feedback about their positive user experiences.
Christianah Oluwashina, a sophomore student of Political Science, told this reporter that “the privacy Findcenter provides is what attracted me.” From the comfort of her room, she watches practical guides on how to conquer worries.
“I don’t want a situation where a friend would see me come out of a therapist’s office and start spreading the news around, though I’m not sure if there’s one here in Akungba,” she added.
To aid the stability process, Findcenter also offers weekly classes for students to learn self-care techniques like meditation, breathwork, and reflexology among others.
These classes, lasting for 30-60 minutes, are meant to “give people a moment of respite in their busy lives,” according to Pincus.
After four months with Findcenter, Felix has stabilised his traumatic mind, determined to move on. “I have control over my agony now. Some of the videos were animated, so they play on my imagination and hold my attention. It feels like I’m watching a movie in class.”
Considering his tight schedule, he awaits recommended materials sent through the mail every weekend. These materials include podcasts, videos, quotes and articles that were exclusively selected for him based on the topics he showed interest in while completing his identification as a student on the platform.
Need for therapy
The battle against gadget addiction among youths is ongoing. Pincus, aware of the paradox, described the difficulty in overcoming the craving for “dopamine hits that come from seeing likes and shares.”
She, however, disclosed that efforts are in place to build a network of therapists that can be accessible to youths, having found out they have little or no physical access to therapists in the area where the school is located.
“One of our goals is to connect people seeking help with the best therapists in their area. Social media and general online addiction or compulsion is a real problem, not just for youths but certainly for their generation.
“We hope to be part of the solution by providing truly helpful, healing resources on our site and getting a closeby therapist from our network to provide the needed help,” Pincus added.
According to data provided by the organisation, 154 Nigerians have looked through more than 1,000 pages on the platform. At least eight of them are AAUA students going by this reporter’s findings. One of them is Deola who started using the platform since its establishment last September.
“I know it’s not a quick stop-gap for what I’m going through, I just feel that I can get better if I keep at it and I will,” Deola told this reporter.
Messages sent to the institution’s Dean of Student Affairs and Public Relations Officer for comments on the state of the university’s Guidance and Counselling Unit and what kind of support the institution provides its students were unanswered as of the time of filing this report.
Prioritise mental health policies, experts tell FG
Toluwalase David-Oluwole, a Programme Officer at Enactus Nigeria praised the leveraging of technology in accessing mental aid. She, however, worries about the lack of physical and emotional expression.
She said, “Human emotion and expression are often misconstrued or not properly examined via technology. Nonetheless, using technology has allowed people access to psychological aid, especially since Covid-19.”
Toluwalase, who also runs a mental health community called Voice Out The Expression Initiative, urged the legislative arm of government to review the Lunacy Act which was enacted in 1958, adding that such review would foster investment in the health sector.
“There’s indeed a need for inclusive policies that allow individuals full access to these mental health services without stigma. Also, partnering with organisations working in that sector will go a long way,” she noted.
While supporting her, Dedoyin Ajayi, a licensed psychotherapist, also advocated the implementation of a functional therapist team in each institution.
She said, “I would recommend the creation of a functional, professional team of therapists in each school that students can talk to about their mental health. Also, mental health talk should be added to institutions’ orientation programmes.”
The report was sponsored by I-79 Media Consults’ Campus Solutions project which is supported by the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) as part of the 2022 LEDE Fellowship.