Salem Ogunlowo is a private, professional therapist and an author. A trained integrative and grief counsellor, she manages and supports individuals, groups and organisations struggling with various levels of mental health concerns, including emotional distress. The author of the new book, Suffering and Smiling: A Nation’s Dilemma, is interviewed by Henry Akubuiro in Lagos, where she deconstructs the magnitude of mental health problems in Nigeria contained in her debut offering.
You are the author of Suffering and Smiling, a book from a psychotherapist perspective, what inspired it?
I was inspired to write this book, first of all, when I noticed the level of awareness on mental-related issues in Nigeria was not that much. There was a time I noticed a group of men trying to set ablaze an old woman in Yaba, Lagos, who they claimed to be a witch, because she forgot her name, where she was coming from and where she was going to. The mob claimed that she had just finished her meeting in a coven and crash-landed when the data she was using to fly expired, so they wanted to set her ablaze.
I was taken aback, because it was a situation where the woman was suffering from the onset of dementia (loss of memory) . It is an age-related sickness (it’s in my book). When I watched that scene, I said, “Oh, we are still very far from being aware of what mental health was all about. I also found out that the aggressive nature of the people who wanted to set her ablaze was also a mental issue. Besides, I noticed that people were spiritualising the suicide rate in the country, showing their ignorance of mental issues.
This is your first book, how long did it take you to publish it?
For a book of this nature, because a lot of work went into it, it took me about two years from conception to reality. It’s not a book you rush because of what it contains; it has to do with human psyche. Research was involved, as well as personal experience. Also, some of my clients also supported me.
You also run a therapy centre?
Yes, I do. It’s not medical-related in the sense that I prescribe medication. I describe myself as a human doctor, meaning that I treat issues and not the symptoms. For instance, somebody who is always having anxiety issues or constantly unable to sleep, my duty is to find out what is actually making the person not to sleep and what’s triggering that anxiety —the root cause of the problem. Then I offer insight on how to resolve the problem (s).
In Nigeria, people look at this field of psychology as a western way of solving issues, but we all have problems that weigh us down. It could be relational; it could be losing a dear one or work-related or trying to find answers to life and some of us don’t know how to pave that way to solve some of these issues, that’s why you need people like us to guide you.
For somebody who hasn’t read this book, can you shed some light?
Suffering and Smiling: A Nation’s Dilemma is loaded; it’s a book I will recommend to all Nigerians to read, not because I am the author but because of what it contains and the awareness it actually creates in terms of mental health-related issues. When you see yourself being depressed and you don’t know the cause; you are anxious; you are unnecessarily fearful; that anger that you don’t even know how to be constructive with and is rather directed at your children and wife; the young girl who wants to be as slim as Beyonce, therefore, abusing food; the youth who, having been raised in a godly way, but because of peer pressure, is now abusing drugs; those parents who need to know to help that child, this book is for you.
If you are not suffering from mental health related issues, probably you know somebody who is. So a book like this equips you to help the person. It could be somebody suffering from dementia or psychosis. If you have signs of a mental problem but don’t know what the problem is, this book also is for you. The book is available in Nigeria. You can get it on my website, www.therapybysalem.com. We are also trying to get it into Jumia.
The title of this book reminds me of one of Fela’s classic with the same title, what’s the nexus?
I actually gave credit to Fela in the book, because we all grew up hearing “Suffering and Smilling” by the Afrobeat genius. I touched briefly on that in the book what informed Fela to sing that song. In choosing the title, I came to the realisation that many of us wear suffering and smiling as a label. We Nigerians have come to portray that resilience, that all is well with us. You find out that some of us have this happy persona, but, deep inside us, we are dying and concealing issues that have to do with mental health.
Besides, I want to raise the benefits of talk therapy in the book. What you can also do that can help your mental issue is also in the book.
The lockdown that came with the Covid-19 pandemic seems to have triggered unprecedented rape cases all over Nigeria, with fathers raping their daughters, what’s happening?
It’s painful to see the alarming rate of rape cases in the country. It’s incest. Ours is a society noted for good moral upbringing that guides our conducts, but when you begin to see things like that happening, you begin to wonder what’s going on. It’s a combination of several factors. From my perspective, I think it’s a psychological problem, because, as humans, we are created in the likeness of God. For a father who departs from what’s natural and goes for the unnatural – sex that God made to be enjoyed between a husband and a wife in a sacred way now being turned the other way – what do you call that? That’s a psychological problem or I would say it’s a combination of spiritual and psychological.
What’s the solution?
I am happy the way policies are being looked into on how to curb the menace of rising rape cases in the country and punishing the perpetrators. I actually belong to this group, Advocates for Children and Vulnerable People, wherein we work tirelessly, in conjunction with the police and lawyers, to ensure the perpetrators are actually brought to book. But that’s not enough. Not much attention is given to the victims. There is no policy in place for a rehabilitation centre or a therapy centre put in place by the government to take care of these survivors to ensure they don’t suffer the aftereffect of raping, because the aftereffect is actually very damaging to them; they end up suffering intimacy problem, anxiety and depression for those who get married, and they become anti-social and lose confidence.
For the rapists, they could be jailed or made to pay a fine and they come back to society. And, because their problems are not solved after the jail terms, they end up raping more people. The policy in place does not solve the root cause of what’s driving the rape adventures. I would solicit that the government also helps the perpetrators of rape cases by sending them for therapy to address that psychological problem that make fathers to make love with their daughters and sometimes impregnating them. Both the victims and the perpetrators should be assisted by the government with therapy and rehabilitation.