Dr. Vivian Okoye is an optometrist, a psychologist and professional parents’ coach. In this interview with ENE OSHABA she speaks on Gender Based Violence (GBV), giving an insight into causes as well as proffers solutions for total elimination.
What inspired you to mental health and was that your childhood dream?
My childhood dream was to study Guardians and Counselling but my Dad at the time wasn’t going to pay school fees for anything that was medical sciences. So, I had to please dad and get my first Degree which was in Optometry. I didn’t have much of a choice.
However, despite studying optometry, I was still very fascinated by the workings of the mind and always interested in trying to understand the drivers of human behaviour. So, even though I studied optometry I found myself seeking knowledge in the area of Psychology and human behaviour.
Eventually, after I had my first child, I started to invest in understanding how a child’s mind works. It was in the bid to understand my child better and parent her better that I found myself delving into the field of child Psychology.
This passion has since metamorphosed into many beautiful expressions including my passion for mental health and wellbeing of children and women especially.
I am a certified Neuro-Linguistic practitioner, seasoned speaker and author. As a child psychologist, I help individuals especially parents to heal from their childhood traumas, so that they don’t unconsciously pass these traumas down to their kids.
I also work with children, teenagers and young adults to modify behaviour, break bad habits, as well as boost their self confidence.
I am the founder of the Vivian Okoye parenting academy: Nigeria’s first full-fledged online parenting school, where I provide parents with the knowledge, skills and strategies to raise wholesome, balanced, trauma-free and responsible children, in these modern times, without losing their minds and serenity in the process.
I am also the convener of Parents’ Summit Africa, one of the largest parenting conferences in Africa. In the last five years, this annual summit convened and mentored thousands of African parents under the same roof, with thousands streaming online.
The event is set up as a platform where parents can gather to have relevant parenting conversations as well as dissect the contributions of parents, parenting and the family unit in nation building and sustainable development.
As the co-creator of the One Parenting Plan Away Experience, I commit consistently to training and equipping parents to plan their parenting journey in a way that offers them the necessary skills and structures for raising wholesome kids, while preserving their mental health.
I believe that, investing in conscious parenting is our key to becoming better humans, who change the world. My mantra is, “if we can get it right with the family, then we can get it right with the society.’’ This is why I am deeply committed to sustainable development in Africa through parenting education.
My track record over the years has inspired my current mission greatly. With experience spanning across years of clinical and community practice in optometry, Eye Care Practice Regulation in Nigeria, teen mentoring and coaching, life and health counselling to vulnerable communities, one should conclude that my commitment to providing parenting education, coaching ,counselling and mental health support is only an extension of patient-centred care that sees beyond the healthcare setting.
I like to refer to myself as the conscious parent and nation builder.
I am happily married to a very supportive husband, and together, raising two biological children and a foster daughter.
Another 16 days activism against Gender Based Violence (GBV) is here. What is your take on the campaign?
I am super excited about this activism and I have huge expectations that it will trigger awareness in individuals which happens to be a major first step in the fight against gender based violence. However, beyond activism, a lot of work still needs to be done.
For example, in the area of child marriage, prosecution of offenders of gender based violence among others.
Also, this conversation would not be complete if I do not talk about parenting education. The key to eliminating gender based violence is deeply rooted in how we groom our children and kind of humans we are raising at home and sending into the society.
We need to groom boys to become men who value respect women as well as groom girls who have a good sense of self-worth. If we can raise better and wholesome humans in our homes, half of our problems as a society will already be solved.
Parenting requires a lot of unlearning, learning, relearning and skill building. This is an area that the government should consider. They should consider setting up state funded institutions to ensure that parents are taught and equipped to raise responsible individuals.
How would you assess GBV in the country?
Gender based violence in Nigeria is astronomically high and this has a lot to do with our cultural reality and upbringing.
Men are brought up to feel superior; females are brought up with a lot of invalidation and dependency minded. We have a system of society in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded or subjugated.
Women are highly treated as inferior and are highly dependent on men for survival. All of these and many more are contributory to the cycle of GBV we see in the nation today.
So, the campaign is not yielding much impact in Nigeria?
The annual global campaign is an excellent initiative and is definitely making impact because the key to any societal change is awareness and advocacy. Yes, the campaign is a good start.
As a psychologist what are the effects of GBV especially on women?
The effects of GBV on women are enormous; some of these have caused mental health challenges among women and children.
For instance, the cultural expectations and demands placed on the female gender, pressures created by their multiple roles, childbirth and postpartum depression, gender discrimination and associated factors of economic handicap: poverty, hunger, malnutrition, overwork, and domestic violence as well as sexual abuse is quite disturbing.
Talking about mental health issues, the statistics is alarming what do you think led to this situation?
I would say that when a problem becomes prevalent, then it calls for attention. I think this is what happened between 2017 and 2018 when, thanks to social media, a lot of cases of suicide, violence and substance abuse constantly sprung up and went viral. I think that got people to pause and ask questions and also gave professionals an opportunity to assert themselves.
Furthermore, Nigeria is currently facing multiple public health challenges such as the effects COVID-19 pandemic, health and social workers’ burnout, ill-equipped healthcare facilities, increase in anxiety, depressions and suicidal episodes, communal violence and insecurity and let’s not forget economic hardship and its effects on the health.
All of these impacted the mental health of people, more people started to open up about their struggles and social media in one way or the other amplified the message.
Is it true that mental health issues are more prevalent in women?
Some mental health conditions are more prevalent in women than men, for example depressions and anxiety.
While some studies infer that the statistics are most likely influenced by gender bias of the fact women are more likely to seek help more than men will, there are many other studies and statics that show that mental health issues are largely more prevalent in women than in men.
A study by the WHO showed amongst many other things that depressive disorders account for close to 41.9 per cent of the disability from neuropsychiatric disorders among women compared to 29.3 per cent among men.
What exactly is mental health?
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), mental health is; “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”
Simply put, mental health is the state of well-being of the mind.
Contrary to popular opinion, mental health doesn’t only refer when one has totally lost their mind. Something as common as having anger and rage issue, not handling stress well, being in a constant unmotivated state, depending on alcohol, drugs or other substance to feel good are all indicative of a poor mental health.
In Nigeria, there is a very low level of awareness regarding mental health. The average Nigerian does not place as much value on their mental health as they do their physical health.
There is also a huge gap in number of facilities and professionals in relation to the population. When it come mental health care facility in Nigeria, we really do not have close to what it take to cater for the mental health needs of Nigerians.
We also have the issue of illiteracy and stigmatisation. For example, we see repeatedly cases where individuals with mental health conditions are taken to spiritual houses instead of to the appropriate centres or to professionals to get help. This level of ignorance calls for a massive sensitisation and advocacy program to help Nigerians understand how to effectively care for their mental health.
What are the major causes of mental health issues?
There are very many causes of mental health issues but generally speaking, causes of mental health issues can either be biological, psychological, or environmental.
Biological factors like abnormal functioning of the nerve cell circuits or pathways, brain injury, genetics etc. can result to mental health issues. Also, psychological factors like childhood trauma (physical, emotional, sexual or neglect) can cause mental health issues.
Environmental factors like growing up in a dysfunctional home, with an alcoholic parent or experiencing a loss of parent by death or divorce can impact of mental health. Also, substance abuse can cause mental health issues.
Is mental health challenge synonymous to madness as generally believed?
It’s quite unfortunate the level of ignorance that we see when it comes to the conversation around mental health.
Mental health issues ranges from mild, moderate and severe. It is a spectrum. Yes, there can be extreme or severe cases where a person might lose their senses resulting from a mental health challenge but there are everyday people who are living normal life but struggling with their mental health.
The sad thing is that a lot of these people end up not speaking up until things get severe. Perhaps out of the fear of being misunderstood or stigmatised.
So, no, having a mental health challenge doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve lost your mind.
What roles can government play in ending GBV, especially as it concerns mental health of citizens?
The government can start with education and sensitisation especially at the grass root level then beyond sensitisation, there is a huge need for more mental health facilities in the country.
If the government can create facilities and employ professionals, maybe the cost of accessing mental health care will be more affordable and accessible to the average Nigerian.
All I see is inadequacies, improving the standard of living of its individuals by providing basic amenities like education, water, electricity, and healthcare, can go a long way to ameliorate the demands on the mental health of individuals.
What is your advice on ending GBV in Nigeria?
Again, I will come back to the foundation which is parenting. To drive any change in the society, the government needs to partner with the smallest unit of the society which is the family.
The quality of humans we raise at home is a reflection of what our society. The men who violate women and girls are from homes; the girls who in some instances accept being violated as a normal way of life are raised by people.
We need to pay attention to parenting education and the role it plays in all of this. It will be a long ride but it will be worth it.
Parents and intending parents need to get equipped to raise wholesome humans and break this cycle of trauma and violence.
I dream of a time when we will have state funded institutions to teach parenting education.
We need a more citizen focused government.
A government who cares enough for her citizens to ensure that life is easier for them as much as possible.
A government committed to relieving some of the burdens that impact on the mental of its citizenry.
For citizens, I would advise that we be kind, compassionate and empathic to each other.
Let’s stop stigmatising people when they speak up about their mental health challenges, let’s stop discounting people’s struggles too.
As much as possible, be a listening ear and comforting shoulder to the people around you. Also, when you are overwhelmed or feel like something is wrong or you notice any signs of mental health breakdown in you, don’t fail to reach out to a trusted person or professional to seek help. As we do this, slowly but surely, we will thrive.