ADBEIN SMITH and WALTER CAREW from the Freetown Cluster have recently launched a project to promote the health of church leaders in Sierra Leone. They've been explaining to Jake why this work is important.
Jake: Adbein, tell us about this project.
Adbein: Well it’s geared towards encouraging faith leaders – preachers, church pastors, reverends – to start thinking about their own health, rather than just thinking about their congregation. Many times they focus on praying for people and healing them, but they forget themselves. With the support of our Co-Leader Ted and some funding from the Archbishop of Canterbury, we have started to try and bring these church leaders together to discuss the different health issues they face.
Jake: And what have you done so far?
Adbein: So we’ve done an initial survey with a lot of churches, ministers, community members. And what has come out very strongly is that stress is a big problem that affects them. So is Typhoid and Malaria. After the survey we then brought them together to a meeting - a whole day session - where we discussed these issues. They agree that yes indeed, this is a problem. So now together we are starting to discuss how we find ways to share information on these topics – how to prevent Malaria for instance – and who among the group has links with relevant programmes to help us do this. It’s quite similar to the Cluster model actually: coming together to share messages and resources. So at the moment we are mapping out strategies on how to manage these illnesses, and creating a platform where all of them would be able to address those particular issues.
Jake: For people unfamiliar with Sierra Leone, Walter can you explain the role that faith leaders play in society, beyond just their own congregations?
Walter: Well because of the respect they command among the community, faith leaders are brought in by government and other stakeholders on significant issues. So for example they were brought in when the civil war was at its peak. They were able to intervene by talking to the rebels, talking to government and seeing how they could bring people together. And it was the same with Ebola too. The belief is that these religious leaders have the respect of the people, and so command their attention. So whatever they say from their pulpits in their sermons, people listen to a lot. For the Christians every Sunday, and for the Muslims every Friday, religious leaders have an audience which they can influence to bring about change.
Jake: And Walter, thinking about stress as the main issue these faith leaders face – I know you’re very passionate about mental health – why is this your passion? Why is it so important?
Walter: Well I like working with people, and one area that has been neglected for so long – even by the government and other health practitioners – is the mental health of people. It’s a challenge because of a lack of information, and because people are not aware of what causes it. So a lot of people who are maybe going through the early stages of mental illness do not show up for treatment, or for any intervention. Rather, they withdraw because of the stigma. Sometimes even their family hide them in their homes so that people don’t know that their relative has a mental illness. And so it’s a concern for me that here people are suffering from something they could easily have an answer for.
Jake: And how do you think the recent history of Ebola and Civil War has affected people’s understanding of mental health in the country?
Walter: Well it’s created awareness. Before the war, people didn’t know about trauma. They didn’t have a positive attitude towards those who were mentally ill or stressed or whatever. But during the war when people began to display some of these mental conditions out of the stress and distress and traumatic events that they faced, then people became aware. So I would say it was a condition lying there that people were not aware of. Now, even though the event of the war and the event of Ebola, and even the flooding may have raised it up, I don’t think it is significantly higher than what it was. So the condition was there. I think the events that trigger it just helped get an awareness. That’s what I would say.
Adbein: And so what we are now looking at is to be able to deliver training where we will have people like Walter, who is experienced in mental health, and other people in the country with resources to see how we can link them so that we are able to provide as much useful information as possible on Malaria, Typhoid and stress.
Jake: And so if they understand their own health better then they are better equipped to improve the health of their congregation and their community?
Walter: Exactly. And also because they cannot give what they do not have: if they are aware and take good care of their own health, then they will develop the passion to pass on information on health issues to their congregation. Quite a few churches already have very interesting health programmes in their congregation. For example, there are one or two that occasionally have a “Health Sunday” in which after the service they will check the blood pressures and the blood sugar of everybody in the congregation who is willing. And I believe, in the same vein, talking about these three major illnesses that were brought out by the survey, these are things that you could create an awareness of and advise people of. For example, stress. I mean, a little intervention and knowledge about self-care, organising your day, and a little lecture on listening, could help others help those who are stressed.
So these are small, small things that they could teach their congregation, and help them help each other. Because it is not a matter of getting sick then finding a solution - it’s better to avoid it altogether. For example, I mentioned churches taking blood pressure, but they could also advise you on what to do to keep it low. Or if they look at stress, they could also have a session on how to relieve stress. I mean if these things begin to move forwards from just words and sensitisation to action in the congregation I think it would go a long way.
Listen to Adbein and Walter explain more about the role of faith leaders in Sierra Leone in this podcast.