This is the dire situation that the tiny but gorgeous, West African nation faces. It is somewhat pleasing that social work and mental health enthusiasts are rising to meet the challenge. We seek to make this topic discussable and as always we believe that sharing stories about people making a change: transforms, motivates and creates a ripple effect. In today’s story we caught up with Sahid Bangura, a Sierra Leonean mental health advocate. He shares on how he is contributing to making a positive change to the mental health of disadvantaged persons and communities in Sierra Leone.
I was born in a polygamous family; my father married two wives and gave birth to eleven children. My mama has six children. I count myself lucky being the fifth child to my mama. Like with most large families in the 21st century, we had to compete for resources, it was extremely difficult especially since both my parents are illiterate. I am proud of my mama who believed in the value of education and was willing to do the needful to ensure that her children were educated. They say the stories of African children are almost the same, with dreams bounded by poverty. I realized at a young age that the only thing that would help me change this narrative is education. Today, I am proud to be the first child of my father who earned a University degree, my dad was a driver who worked for the UNHCR and a seed multiplication programme for a very long time. His desire was to educate all of his children, for he thought that he will die a successful man if his children acquire higher education. I could tell that he felt fulfilled, when I saw him shed tears on my graduation day. ( This behaviour, you may agree with me is not common for an African Man). I graduated with a honours degree in Social work from the Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone. Today I have professional certifications in Mental health, substance abuse and mental health first aid. I am listed as one of the 30 Drug educators in Sierra Leone – a program which was organised by ECOWAS and the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency.
TRUST THE TIMINGS OF LIFE
It was tough and difficult coming from a home where no one motivates you to study, do your assignment. Getting someone to attend PTA meetings was a struggle, I remember begging my friend’s parents to attend school meetings for me. I learnt the values of humility and hard work early in life. I cultivated a healthy competition within myself and my peers.
Then the rare moments of elevation began, the son of a petty trader was the first elected president of the social work department- Fourah Bay College. My main task was to help educate the general public about the importance of the profession, calling on the attention of Government and NGO’s to see the need of Social Work education in Sierra Leone.
I realize now that I have been a social worker since childhood, as I always protected my step brothers and sisters when the need arises. My elder brother had an accident and was disabled, when I was about 7 years old. By then we were refugees in Guinea, a few years after the accident that disabled Him , our family started noticing mood swings and signs of schizophrenia. Upon our return to Sierra Leone, He became an addict and started misusing drugs. His issues with substance abuse led the family to investigate further, where did he pick up this bad habit? Shockingly he had been abusing hard substances even before the accident. As the years went by, his condition deteriorated and he started suffering from auditory and visual hallucinations that progressed into mental distress. Till this day, we have had to care and provide for his needs. Ironically, people look up to older siblings, it has been the reverse for me. I have had to care for him.This chapter in my story might have been different, if we had parents who parented better. I believe that my brother’s issue was as a result of lack of parental control, role modelling and motivation. One would say my personal experience urged me into focusing my education on substance abuse and mental health.
Due to the tons of teenage pregnancies, early marriages and domestic violence which I witnessed as a child, I decided to join the Voice of Children and Children Forum Network (CFN) when I entered Senior Secondary school. I encouraged many young boys and girls in the eastern part of Freetown to join the forum . This I believe helped shape the lives of dozens of young boys and girls that joined these forums. Today, I am proud of so many of them as they are now ambassadors and activists: touching lives in Sierra Leone. During my time at CFN, I advocated for the establishment of a CFN branch at the east end of Freetown.
I had wanted to study law or mass communication when I finished secondary school but my cousin who had been following me closely advised me to go for social work. He said because I always had passion for humanity and studying social work will help me achieve those dreams.(I have no regrets) When I started the program, it was very challenging; as social work education was new in our country. Over the years many people had ‘functioned’ as social workers even without the formal field of study, so these individuals as experienced as they may be had leeway within the social services circles.
As my interest in advocacy grew, I realized that Sierra Leoneans are very resilient . As we have struggled through many tough times : the Ebola epidemic, the August 14 mudslide and now the Corona Virus pandemic. Amidst all this, we have to battle with the development opportunities, many graduates from universities, colleges and technical institution are with out jobs or job ready. They are left to fight off, feelings of hopelessness and depression. This helps to trigger bad behavioural patterns and many more issues including mental illness.
The profession is still struggling to get an enabling working environment. We face a lot of issues around Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD’s) especially among the youth population in Sierra Leone.
THE WAY FORWARD
This is why I have invested in an Organisation that is Creating Opportunities for disadvantaged persons (CODaP), as the founder and director, I consider myself as an advocate for the vulnerable population in Sierra Leone. Especially the aged, albinos, children and youths that are involved in serious alcoholism and drug abuse. Our team is acting as a pressure group for the vulnerable, creating awareness raising and sensitization campaigns. In the strive to minimize mental illnesses in Sierra Leone, there should be sustainable programs for young people, like rehab centers that will help to modify the behaviors of youth in the country.
Parenting is also a big concern in Sierra Leone. As a nation we must realize that good parenting is one of the keys to guarding mental health. I suggest that the children’s commission and other children’s forums embark on sustainable community programs on how to take care of children. They must follow what is required by law and use tools and resources to support families dealing with disabilities and mental illnesses. There should be social workers in major institutions with equipped safe spaces, which will help the work force to run smoothly .
TOGETHER WE CAN DO SO MUCH
Many people want to embark on the journey of being a social worker but they become scared. Maybe, because it is labeled as a non-profitable profession, but I stand to defer, because I believe that helping vulnerable people is a blessing that cannot be bought.
It takes passion, love, empathy and selflessness to fulfill the dream of helping others. My hope is that we would all learn not be judgmental, that everyone matters, we should always learn to treat people equally.
Let’s take drug abuse as a case study: peer mentoring is key because lots of young people tend to listen to peers than older people because they speak the same language and can understand each other better. I think mentoring is great and it will teach young people, how to speak up and ask for help.