In Nigeria, where traditional healthcare institutions have failed, the internet has taken up the mantle and fashioned a new kind of approach that focuses on educating people about issues that aren't readily addressed by the country's existing system. Traditional resources that cater primarily to issues of mental, sexual and reproductive health are dismal, outdated and often times ineffective, but the internet (and social media in particular) has proved to be a popular alternative for millennials who are looking for information
MerDroits - Destigmatizing Sexual and Reproductive Health
In 10 months, the online community MerDroits has built an active following of over a thousand people who are keen to talk about issues regarding reproductive and sexual health rights. The community, which currently operates on Twitter, deems itself "a shame-free, judgement-free storytelling community for young people to personalize the issues around sexual/reproductive health and rights."
"Right when I began, it was very important to me that our method of educating people about these issues wasn't a top-down approach," said Florida Uzoaru, founder of MerDroits.
"I wanted people's lived experiences to inform what we were talking about and I wanted it to be a conversation between all parties, which is why we chose the method we did."
The method in question is in form of an informal conversation that revolves around a particular sexual or reproductive health topic. The conversation is marshaled by the use of a hashtag and the only rule is that the exchange between participants is cordial and tolerant. Social media's ability to democratize the conversation around issues of sexual and reproductive health has allowed most people to ask questions, share experiences and ultimately learn from a community who has no interest in passing judgment. From topics like abortion and sexually transmitted diseases that are still culturally sensitive topics to topics like mensuration, which is quite ubiquitous in its occurrence but still lacks nuance when discussed, MerDroits provide a space for those who choose to share their stories discreetly and it also serves as a place to refute myths and misinformation that people have come to take as fact.
"The problem is that people might have the wrong information about topics like this, but because they are embarrassed and keep quiet they are not aware that they have the wrong information. And that's what we want to combat," said Uzoaru
As the social enterprise grows, Uzoaru is expanding the organization's goal to go beyond facilitating conversation to providing services.
Because of the lack of resources specifically dedicated to sexual and reproductive health, women are more likely to encounter a doctor whose area of expertise doesn't align with the issue they are interested in discussing. In other cases, women might be prevented from making decisions about their own sexual and reproductive health without the presence of a partner, and another pressing issue is finding a safe and judgment-free space equivalent to the platforms online that offer actual medical services. In response to this, Uzoaru plans to expand the MerDroits platform to an online clinic that provides affordable, easy and discreet access to counseling and medical consultation.
"We really wanted to create a safe space for people not to have to worry about any of the issues they face going to traditional doctors," said Uzoaru.
Although the online platform will not be able to offer treatment, users of the service will be able to chat with doctors, receive medical referrals and purchase prescribed contraceptives.
"Our goal as an organization is to be an online sexual and reproductive health marketplace, so that when people come into our space they know that all the people they encounter are focused on issues of sexual and reproductive health."
PsyndUp - Making Mental Health Services More Accessible
For Funmilade Taiwo, the founder of PsyndUp, it's all about mental health.
"I think there's a fear of the unknown, people just don't understand it yet," said Taiwo about how mental health is received in Nigeria.
"It's something people experience every day, but they just don't understand it. And if you don't understand it, you can't communicate it and if you can't communicate it you can't address it."
Taiwo's platform, PsyndUp, which will act as an online directory of mental health professionals working in Nigeria, is his attempt to address the disconnect between individuals who need mental health services and professionals who provide it. Until very recently, the conversation about mental health in Nigeria has not been a robust one. Legally, the Lunacy Act of 1958 is still the foundation for how mental health issues are addressed in Nigeria. The act allows anyone who falls under the definition of mentally ill to be arrested and detained in an asylum. Most people fail to understand that mental health is a spectrum and should be medically treated as such. Instead, the one size shoe fits all method that is perpetuated by the 58-year-old act has lead many to stigmatize mental illness and relegate the term "mentally ill" to people who showcase visibly erratic behavior. As a result, many people are reluctant to express their need for mental health resources because of the fear of being stigmatized.
"There are people who know they need the help, but they are afraid of getting the help because of what other people will say," said Taiwo.
According to Taiwo, another issue is sourcing doctors who are trained to deal with a variety of mental illnesses.
"There is a difficulty finding mental health doctors in large numbers," said Taiwo.
"It's not a glorified profession in Nigeria, it's not the most prestigious field because of the stigma surrounding mental health . There are a lot of Nigerian psychiatrists outside of this country and that's because people respect the profession in other countries. They understand the value of good mental health."
For Taiwo, the goal is for Psyndup to change the narrative around issues of mental health in Nigeria and ultimately Africa.
"I want Psyndup to be a growing network of professionals in Africa. I want people to see that mental health professionals exist in Africa and hopefully, that will make more people want to contribute to the cause."