Psychosocial support is needed to build a stable society


Rowda Olad’s dream is to bring mental health work and psychosocial support into the peacebuilding and community development process in Somalia. In a country where mental health problems are hard to even talk about, the workload is massive. The Deaconess Foundation supports the pioneering work of Maandeeq Mental Health, an organisation founded by Oladi.

A woman with a blue head scarf.

Decades of conflict have wounded the minds of many Somalis in ways that affect their behaviour and thinking. Because of this, psychosocial support and mental health work needs to be involved at all levels of society in order for a reconciled and stable society to be possible, says Rowda Olad.

Mental health is a major problem worldwide. But you can imagine that in a country that has suffered decades of conflict and civil war, the work is immense. Of course we can’t possibly provide enough support, but at least we have a vision and a start.

So says psychotherapist Rowda Olad. The “we” she refers to is Maandeeq Mental Health, the organisation she created to increase the focus on mental health and psychosocial support in peace-building and community development work in Somalia and beyond.

“The name Maandeeq refers on the one hand to the female camel, a symbol of Somalia. The other meaning relates to the nourishment of the mind. So for us, Maandeeq means the question of how to nourish the mind of the community and contribute to the well-being of the nation,” she explains.

Olad speaks of a dream because the workload is huge in a country where there are still no structures, professionals or even ways of talking about mental health work.

Missing structures must first be created

Rowda Olad is herself from Somalia. Her family fled Mogadishu in the 1990s when Rowda was less than ten years old. She ended up living in the US, where she went to school and studied psychology and mental health at Ohio State University.

She says that psychology is not usually a popular subject for Somalis studying abroad. Many people think that there are no jobs in this area in Somalia.

“During my studies, in 2011, I travelled to Somalia and saw the state of mental health services there: there was only one hospital in the whole of Mogadishu treating mental health patients. That’s when I decided that I would like to become a therapist and get involved in mental health work in Somalia.

Olad returned to Somalia in 2015 with the aim of providing therapy services and setting up a psychiatric hospital. However, she soon realised that by doing regular consultancy work she would not be able to make as big an impact as she had hoped.

“I realised the extent to which people in Somalia were suffering in their daily lives and struggling with their own traumas. I saw the impact of trauma history on people’s behaviour and interactions. The whole country seemed to need healing,” Olad recalls.

“In order to harness people’s capacity to benefit society, understanding mental health challenges and providing psychosocial support is crucial. Therefore, this aspect should be included in any development programme that is carried out in Somalia.”

This is how Olad’s dream was born. She began to spread awareness of the importance of mental health issues and involved both national and international organisations in the debate. To support this work, Maandeeq Mental Health Without Borders was created in 2016.

Need for mental health professionals with local cultural knowledg

“One of Maandeeq’s goals is to lay the groundwork for mental health work in Somalia. There are many people of Somali background living in the diaspora who would like to return to Somalia and work for the country. But there are no structures or services in Somalia for psychologists, therapists and other mental health professionals to come and do practical work,” says Olad.

“Applying skills acquired elsewhere to Somali culture is not straightforward either. I myself am constantly trying to learn more about how to do effective mental health work in Somalia.

A foundation has therefore to be created from the grassroots up. There is a need to find professionals who know the language and the culture so that they can work in Somalia. There is also a need to create opportunities for such people to work and feel that their skills are valued in Somalia. This space will not be created unless local actors are convinced that there is a need for such work.

Olad has travelled around the country talking about mental health problems and the possibilities of therapy in various institutions, including prisons. She has held workshops for different government ministries and has sought to involve different levels of government in promoting her aims. After six years of work, significant changes are already emerging.

“No university in Somalia teaches psychology or other mental health curricula. But now SIMAD University in Mogadishu has started working with Maandeeq. Next year, it will train 15-20 students in mental health work. SIMAD’s student health care and research work also takes a mental health perspective into account.

Mental health and psychosocial support for peace-building

Another key aspect of Rowda Olad and Maandeeq’s work is the integration of mental health work and psychosocial support into peacebuilding. This process is supported by the development programme of the Deaconess Foundation.

“When societies are rebuilt after war, there can also be voids and new conflicts, for example between tribes. To avoid these, we need to work to support the healing of communities and help people understand how conflict affects their future and the future of their children.”

Olad uses the acronym MHPSS – mental health and psycho-social support in peace building – for this holistic approach. To develop it, Olad is conducting research collaboration with the Mary Hoch Center, another partner of the Deaconess Foundation. A research article and a practical guidebook will be produced, which, in addition to the research, will compile experiences and recommendations for use by researchers and for practical work.

The case studies in the guidebook are from Somalia, but the objectives of the work have a broader relevance.

“We recently organised an exceptionally successful collaborative meeting to build a foundation to support MHPSS work in Somalia. Committed people were involved from Kenya, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda, in addition to Somalia. Together, we were able to outline a roadmap to promote the MHPSS perspective in these countries, and we will meet again next year,” says Olad enthusiastically.

The Deaconess Foundation’s development cooperation programme, funded by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, has played an important role in enabling this cooperation. Olad says she is grateful that the value of the work she does is recognised and that people believe in its potential.

“I visited to Helsinki to talk about the need for psychosocial support in 2019 and the Finns took to the idea and supported my dream, so I feel like I’m almost an adopted daughter of the Finns!”

Small steps towards big goals

So, in six years, there have clearly been many advances and the goals of the work seem to have expanded even further along the way. Does Olad feel that she has succeeded on her chosen path?

“The dream I am pursuing is huge, and our resources are nowhere near the scale of what is really needed. But the work has begun and is backed by a significant commitment that was not there a few years ago. I’ve got people involved who are working on the ground to promote mental health and psychosocial support. There are international organisations involved, but it’s Somalis themselves who are leading the work. There are also Somali ministries involved, and the Galmudug regional government, for example, has adopted mental health work as part of their peace-building programme.”

An important objective for Oladi and Maandeeq is to get the Somali state to commit to maintaining a continuous programme in the future. As Olad points out, Somalia needs to put social recovery high on the agenda.

Rowda Olad is a woman who dares to dream big and also follow her vision. For this interview, I finally caught up with her in the US.

“I’m here on maternity leave. Maybe one day my daughter will be US President,” she laughs.

She says the dream doesn’t seem like a joke. What the world really needs is presidents raised for peace.

The writer, Mikko Hautakangas, is a media and journalism researcher specialising in mediation issues.
Translation Mark Waller

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