A recent mental health conference in Mogadishu broke new ground in many ways. Not only did it draw attention to mental health, a little-discussed or addressed topic in war-torn Somalia, but it is believed to be the first time the American Counseling Association has been represented in Mogadishu.
Yegan Pillay, an ACA member and associate professor in the Department of Counseling and Higher Education at Ohio University, was the keynote speaker for the World Mental Health Day Conference in Mogadishu on Oct. 10.
Pillay, a licensed professional clinical counselor and past chair of ACA’s Human Rights Committee, says the event was a “good starting point.” The one-day event planted seeds to begin addressing mental health issues in a country where many people are “walking wounded” by the trauma of decades of civil war, Pillay says.
The World Mental Health Day Conference was organized by Rowda Olad, a former student of Pillay’s at Ohio University. A Somalian refugee, Olad recently completed a master’s degree in counseling. Pillay said he advised her, upon graduating, to try and influence change – whether at the micro or macro level – in her home country.
“Rowda took the bold step of putting together this conference and inviting stakeholders that make decisions in government,” Pillay says. “It was really groundbreaking.”
Mental health and counseling are “not really on the front burner” in the majority-Muslim country, Pillay says, where the culture also often stigmatizes Western-based interventions.
“I’m not sure where all of this will go, but every journey starts with a single step, as they say. I think it’s movement in the right direction, and I’m optimistic that it will at least raise awareness,” Pillay says. “It’s a tangible concrete step in putting mental health on the agenda in Somalia.”
The conference was co-sponsored by the Somali Ministry of Health and Human Services. Pillay says many of the attendees were government officials, and he tailored his keynote to address the drain that untreated mental illness can cause on an economy, government resources and society.
“I think they will go back to their respective constituents within the ministry and government and — most likely and I hope so — advocate for putting resources into mental health,” he says.
In addition to Pillay, Cherie Bridges Patrick, a licensed independent social worker and clinical supervisor at the Buckeye Ranch, a mental health and social services nonprofit in Ohio, spoke at the Oct. 10 conference.
While in Somalia, Pillay also visited the campus of Benadir University in Mogadishu and met with the school’s dean. “Mental health, counseling and even psychology [are] not well-established or studied in universities [in Somalia],” explains Pillay, who is a native of South Africa.
He hopes that events such as October’s mental health conference will spur Somali students to travel to the U.S. or Europe to be trained in the mental health professions so they can return to Somalia and help those in need.
“Who better to serve the Somali people than Somalis themselves?” he says.
Ohio University is not far from Columbus, Ohio, which is home to one of the largest concentration of Somalian refugees in the U.S. Pillay and his students often work in the Somali community. Pillay is currently working on a translation project for materials about posttraumatic stress disorder that could be distributed in the community.
Pillay says he sees a huge amount of potential for American counselors to train other counselors and advocate for the profession — and mental health in general — internationally, particularly in Africa and other non-Western cultures.
“In many parts of the world, counseling doesn’t exist on its own [as a profession]. ACA is at the forefront of counseling worldwide,” he says.
“We need to really push the boundaries of propagating the benefit of mental health. From a global perspective, there is a great opportunity in the United States because of the number of students who are international” and come to America to study, he says. “There has to be a global focus. Even now, more so, with what’s going on politically. My message would be that we [counselors] transcend the geographical boundaries of the United States and see how we can make a difference for people … regardless of where they’re from. We can certainly lend a hand in terms of human resources [to help] other societies find ways to improve mental health.”
Personal safety and international work
While in Mogadishu, Pillay always traveled in an armored vehicle and stayed in the “green zone,” a designated safe area of the war-torn city.
Counselors shouldn’t be discouraged from working in risky areas – either at home or abroad, Pillay says, adding that they should simply be smart and do some research before they go.
“Do your homework and talk to individuals on the ground in the area to give you an accurate sense of what’s happening,” he says. “Be cautious not to put yourself at undue risk, either at home or abroad. Make sure you have somebody [in the area] that can really articulate how safe you’ll be.”
“There’s no guarantee [of safety,] but you can minimize risks,” he says. “I think one has to keep your wits about you and do background checks. Would I advise individuals to go to Somalia to do [counseling] work? I would be hesitant. But short-term work? Yes. I have no second thoughts about having done what I’ve done.
“But if I go back, I would really want to do as much homework as possible to see if things have changed on the ground or not. It’s an individual decision. I’m a person of color and tend to blend into the communities there. I would not necessarily stand out, but if you’re a white female, you would certainly draw attention to yourself. One has to be very cautious.”
ACA members: Interested in getting involved in international counseling work? Consider joining ACA’s International Counseling Interest Network: bit.ly/2o7pWgF
Is international certification right for you? Tips on getting a counseling certification outside of the U.S. from Counseling Today columnist Doc Warren Corson: wp.me/p2BxKN-4GF
Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at email@example.com
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.