On a journey to change mental health perceptions in society

Monday October 5 2020

Araika Mkulo (centre) during a session with

Araika Mkulo (centre) during a session with clients. PHOTO | COURTESY. 

By Neelam Babul

On a journey to revolutionise Africa one mind-set at a time; is what 28-year-old Araika Mkulo has dreamt of since her first mental breakdown during her University years.

Hearing Araika, the Founder and Cognitive Psychologist at Safe Space, an entity working towards normalising mental health and transforming mindsets in Africa, talk about the work she does as a psychologist clearly depicts that she has found her calling and purpose, even if she stumbled upon it accidentally.

She was pursuing medical engineering when she realised she did not enjoy it and switched to studying psychology, which she finds very rewarding and fulfilling. “There is never a dull moment or an instant where I am bored or uninspired,” she declares with a smile.

Psychology is a very broad subject. Psychologists study behaviours, be it among humans or animals. There are diverse specialties within psychology. Araika is a cognitive psychologist and her specialty is in the thought process, the decision making process, the logical part of the mind and how it translates into human behaviour.

There has been a tremendous change from the time Araika came back to commence her career after graduating; no one knew what Psychology was. There were numerous times when she was asked if she hypnotized people. She faced a lot of rejection while applying for jobs. However, her passion and zeal was commendable.

In the face of all these adversities, she started working from her laptop providing a form of text based therapy. Thereafter, she would meet with patients at cafes for therapy, which wasn’t the ideal set up but it was a stepping stone to something better, which is how Safe Space came to be about.

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“From a very young age I have been an outspoken person, which is not very welcomed in the society. We are always told not to speak up or voice out our ideas or not to behave in a certain way. There are many layers of being ourselves that we are taught to suppress. I wanted to create a place where people shed these layers and are able to embrace their authentic selves. I wanted to create a platform where people get to express their opinions, ideas, feeling and emotions in ways that positively help them to improve their lives,” says Araika.

Undoubtedly, Araika has been a pioneer in spreading awareness about mental health, more specifically, providing a platform where difficult and uncomfortable conversations centred around mental health are discussed.

Seeking help

As important as mental health awareness is, statistics show that men are more inclined to commence therapy than women. “Initially, our target was women but as feminist as our brand is, 80 per cent of my clients were men,” explains Araika.

Araika further explains this paradigm. She says that men are raised to be strong individuals who don’t show any emotions. On the other hand, with us women, we are also raised to glorify struggles and pain. It is like a competition of who has been through the worst. This also prevents women from accessing therapy because they feel it is part of being a woman.

“Men are raised to be in charge but when they get to a point where they feel they have had enough; they make the decision of getting therapy much easier than women do. We do discovery sessions before we start therapy. So, let’s say, we have a fifty-fifty split and we have done five discovery sessions with men and five with women before each of them starts therapy; four out of the five men will start therapy; one out of the five women will start therapy,” Araika says.

This situation may dampen our spirit but it is also exciting to note that for the first time, we as a society are talking about mental health in ways that we have never talked before, Araika says.

“So yes, these things will have adverse effects but the way the current generation will deal with it, will be better than the way it was dealt with previously, which will hopefully balance out the bad,” she says.

A lot of online statistics show that most individuals who have depression and anxiety are based in the Western world. However, Araika stresses that she believes there are similar numbers of individuals in Tanzania. There are cultural factors that could be helpful in mitigating loneliness or depression since we are more collective as a culture, and have more family support than elsewhere in the world.

The accessibility of mental health is restricted due to its extremely high costs and the fact that it is not covered under medical insurance schemes.

Araika clarifies that the cost is high since mental health does not just involve therapy. It involves emotional labour where a psychologist has to focus on a person, analyse them objectively without any judgement.

There is a lot of note taking, designing of exercises and homework for the person to work on. There are several individuals a psychologist meets in a day and providing the best form of care and support requires extreme devotion and patience.

Araika who has been practising psychology for the past six years, tries to balance her life outside of work by keeping her own mental state sane.

“I am not very good at this and I am still working on it. I owe it to my family, friends, the people I work with to be the best I can be. I try to ensure everything outside of my work is positive and healthy as much as possible, that I speak out when someone is exerting a lot of emotional labour from me. I also try to be comfortable with saying no when I am not ready for doing something. I express my boundaries so I can survive,” she expresses.

Mental health as a topic may not be well researched in Tanzania but we need to raise awareness on it so that it loses its power in stigmatising us, Araika believes, adding that we need to normalise discussions about mental health.

As Araika has reiterated, the road may not have been easy before but we have more channels available for ensuring we understand the importance of mental health and the role it plays in ensuring we live the best version of our lives.

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