Olayinka Omigbodun is the first female professor of psychiatry in Nigeria and the first female provost, College of Medicine, University of Ibadan, Oyo State. She tells BLESSING ENENAITE about her achievements, challenges and other issues
You are the first female professor of psychiatry in Nigeria. How did you achieve this feat?
Even before I qualified as a psychiatrist, there were several prominent female psychiatrists in Nigeria. The first female psychiatrist in Nigeria was Dr Bertha Johnson, who worked at the Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital, Yaba, Lagos.
There was also Major General (Dr) Aderonke Kale, who was a female psychiatrist with the Nigerian Army. Dr Taiwo Adamson was also the first female president of the Association of Psychiatrists in Nigeria, and also the first female provost and medical director of Aro Neuropsychiatric Hospital in Abeokuta, Ogun State.
There were a few other female psychiatrists before me but they did not come into the academia. They worked in medical centres and neuropsychiatric hospitals. Many of them are trailblazers in their own rights.
I joined the University of Ibadan as a psychiatry lecturer, and honourary consultant to the University College Hospital, Ibadan, in 1997. By the grace of God, I rose through the ranks and in 2008, I became a professor. I must note that I probably became the first female professor of psychiatry in the country because women practising in the field were not many initially. However, we now have many women practising.
I am privileged to be the first female professor of psychiatry in Nigeria.
What informed your decision to study psychiatry?
When I was a medical student, I initially thought I would study paediatrics because I love children. When one is in medical school, one goes through all the specialties. That means one would go through through psychiatry, medicine, obstetrics and gynaecology, surgery, community medicine, ophthalmology and radiology. All these are beautiful courses. During my ‘rotation’ through paediatrics, I saw sick children when I entered the paediatric ward; and from that moment, I knew I could not specialise in paediatrics. That was because I was concentrating on the fact that I loved children, but the children I loved were the ones who were active. When I saw sick children, it was so heartbreaking and tough. I felt it would be too emotionally difficult for me to look after children who were suffering physically.
I then started looking out for what else I could do. During our psychiatry rotation in 1983, we had so many excellent lecturers, including Prof Michael Olatawura and Prof Olabisi Odejide, who are both late; as well as Dr Williams and Prof Roland Jegede. We also had training in Abeokuta, where we were told to assess six patients, and come back with a write-up. It was a wonderful experience. During the weekends, some of my classmates would leave to Lagos and Ibadan, but I usually stayed behind. I stayed for two weeks in Abeokuta, talking to patients, and finding out about their mental health problems.
In psychiatry, one does assessments from a holistic point of view. In many other specialties, one is dealing with a certain part of the body; but in psychiatry, we deal with the whole person. One has to ask them (patients) what the problem is, their family, childhood, schools, community, religious inclinations, experiences and traumas. Afterwards, one would then put everything together, and draw out a personalised management plan. I felt it was so rich and exciting.
However, there were a lot of things that were not very clear to me in psychiatry. There were some people (patients) who would say they were hearing voices and seeing things that other people could not hear or see.
Another thing I found interesting was that a lot of the issues were about the impact of the environment, upbringing and childhood on the impact; which only start manifesting in adulthood. I then decided that I was going to do psychiatry immediately. Meanwhile, I was then in my third or fourth year in medical school.
I immediately developed relationships with my professors, and they were very welcoming. I had wonderful mentors.
You are also the first female provost of UI’s College of Medicine. Did you ever think you would get to this level in your career?
I never planned to be provost. I simply planned to be the best at what I do. My specialty is child adolescent psychiatry. That was because I was under the tutelage of the first Nigerian child adolescent psychiatrist, Prof Olatawura. He said he felt I should go into child and adolescent psychiatry, and he mentored me.
With regards to becoming the provost, I believe very much in excellence. I also believe that we can change things, and do them properly. I just want an excellent environment.
With all sense of humility, any time I am given a leadership position— of which I have had several opportunities over the years— I experience positive changes. Some of those positions include being the Chief Examiner for Psychiatry in the West African College of Physicians, and the pioneer director of the Centre for Child and Adolescent Mental Health, University of Ibadan. I was very privileged to get a grant to start the centre to train child and adolescent mental health professionals. So far, we have trained over 130 (professionals) from 14 African countries.
Also, I was the pioneer president of the African Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health, as well as the first African to become the president of the International Association for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Allied Professions; and the Head, Department of Psychiatry, UI.
A few people suggested to me the potential my leadership roles had, and I decided to contest the position of provost. The position I occupy now is an elective position. One has to campaign and people have to believe in the one’s vision and mission before voting for one.
It was the second time I contested the office of provost that I eventually won in 2020. Four years before then, I had also contested the post. The first time I tried was a good learning experience.
How is your experience so far?
I am 100 per cent convinced that God put me in the office provost, and I believe I am in God’s perfect will. On the job, there have been ups and downs. However, I work very hard. I believe people should be excellent and give their best to whatever they do. For the people who understand my vision, we get on well. Even in government establishments, I believe people should do their best.
What are some of the challenges you have faced so far?
I have found out that some people’s attitude to work, especially if they are employed by the government, is not too good. There is a lot of mediocrity around; and I don’t know why it is like that. One of the challenges we have is getting people who can do things properly, and write well.
Having capable staff around has been a challenge, and that could be frustrating at times. People come up with different agendas. There are some people who don’t want progress (laughs). Hence, there will be some people who always stand in the way of progress. People who are successful usually face opposition. There will always be people who don’t align with ones vision, and they would make things more difficult than they should be.
Another challenge has to do with funding. This is a government-owned university, and many times, one has to look for funds to run the institution, because the funds coming from the government are grossly insufficient. There are several areas in the institution that are dilapidated. The toilets are in a sorry state, and many times, water doesn’t run in the taps, and electricity supply is insufficient.
We have to run on diesel, and that is expensive. Many times when we need urgent things, I have to put down my money to run the government-owned institution. That is because of the bureaucracy involved in trying to get funds.
I have been quite privileged to get some grants from international agencies, such as the National Institute for Health, in the United States of America; and the National Institute for Health and Care Research, in the United Kingdom.
I travelled to Sierra Leone in March, 2022, for a research work. I had to use my resources. I have returned for almost a year now but the money I spent has not been refunded, because of the problems of bureaucracy. That is one of the hurdles I have faced, and it does not apply to me alone. It also applies to other researchers at the College of Medicine, UI.
We have been unable to access our grants as and when due. Those are some of the issues that the government does not understand. It is actually damaging our system. Grants should be run like a business and those who need funds for research should get it when it is needed.
There is no way we can compete with those in private universities because they have immediate access to funds. Meanwhile, grants help universities improve their ranking. The number and quality of publications that emanate from funded research also helps with ranking. The leadership of this country needs to realise that ‘grantmanship’ should be run as a business.
In addition, since I took office as the provost, the issue of strike actions has been a big challenge. We have been on strike for a longer time than we have been working, since I assumed this position in August 2020. The last strike lasted for eight months. Me and other members of the management had to work without salary for eight months. Coincidentally, my husband also works in the university. That means both of us did not receive salaries for that period, and there are many families in similar situations.
We admit students who are supposed to spend six years at the university, but they end up spending eight years. If this trend continues, the good students will go elsewhere. They will go to a place where things are predictable, and we will lose good students.
Another major issue we are facing is the fact that the best brains are leaving the country. At UI, we train the best students, but when it is time for them to give back to the country, they leave to serve other nations that did not train them. That is a disaster because they are leaving in droves; and the available ones end up being overworked and stressed.
Another big problem is the over-centralisation of processes. For example, many years ago, if I felt we needed to employ people, we would put out vacancies and run interviews. We were allowed to employ new staff. However, we currently need to get approval from Abuja. Some members of staff are retiring and some have also passed away. But, we have not been able replace them for about four years now because of the bureaucracy involved in the process. There is a need for more power, responsibility and trust to be given to the people in charge of institutions to make decisions.
However, aside the negative aspects I mentioned, there have also been a lot of positives.
What are some of the positive sides you have experienced?
I work with some very hard-working people. One of them is Dr Olayinka Egbokhare, who was a senior lecturer at the department of Communication and Language Arts. She has come over to the College of Medicine, where she heads the Biomedical Communication Centre. The deputy provost, Prof Ade Adeniyi, is also extremely hardworking.
I must also mention that my husband, Prof Akinyinka Omigbodun, is a former provost of the College of Medicine, UI, and that has been very helpful (laughs). He has been mentoring me through the landmines and goldmines.
I must acknowledge the alumni as well, because they have been wonderful and supportive. I have to commend the worldwide president of the Ibadan College of Medicine Alumni Association, Prof Dipo Otolorin, who was my teacher in medical school. He has been giving us a lot of support. As a matter of fact, our alumni has been our biggest saving grace. Right now, they are contributing to building a new student hostel, and they have done other fantastic programmes.
Psychiatrists are known to treat mentally unstable people. What are the other aspects of your job?
As a psychiatrist and mental health professional, my work is all encompassing. It involves promotion of mental health, prevention of mental illness, treatment of people with mental illness, and rehabilitation of those with mental health concerns. It also includes making sure that people who have been ill get the necessary care; recover and are restored back to society.
I am delighted that the Mental Health Bill was passed into law recently. What we had before was the Lunacy Act of 1958, where words such as lunatic and asylum were used. It took about 65 years for the law to be signed and changed.
We need policies that will promote mental health, because it has to do with optimal psychological functioning.
There is no way we can have good mental health if we don’t have access to basic facilities. There should be mental healthcare services in every primary healthcare facility in the country through the training of health professionals.
Some medical students have complained that studying the course does not allow them have social lives. How can things be balanced?
Medical education is tough and time consuming. Doctors work hard day and night; and training must be geared towards that. When I was in medical school, I was able to join the church choir, and I used to play the guitar. I also used to act plays, and was involved in sports and other activities. It is just a matter of organising one’s time. A lot of medical students here in Ibadan are entrepreneurs. They run private businesses, because they are very bright and enterprising. Even though it is demanding, I believe there is still time to develop one’s self, and have fun.
There have been complaints about ill-equipped medical facilities in the country, which makes it difficult for medical students to explore their full potential, compared to their foreign counterparts. What do you have to say concerning that?
I don’t agree. Our doctors are some of the best trained in the world. That is why they are being employed in the western world. Our doctors have a lot of on-hand clinical experience. In the developed world, they have a lot of equipment running tests for them, which is good in many ways. But, our doctors have good clinical exposure. The doctors we train can stand tall anywhere in the world, in terms of brilliance, training and capability. We may not have all the equipment, but our doctors are even better than many of their counterparts in other parts of the world.
What do you think is the major cause of wrong diagnosis, which has often led to the loss of lives, and what is the solution to this problem?
At the hospital where I work, we have the best consultants and trainees. Sometimes, one cannot just tell what condition a patient is suffering from. There is something call ‘differentials’, because at times, symptoms could be overlapping. That is why one needs to do investigations. Sometimes, patients may present (themselves to the hospital) late. They show up when things are really bad and expect magic to be done. However, one cannot totally blame patients too because sometimes, they don’t have money to pay for good healthcare. So, they pay based on what they can afford, and that is a problem. Our healthcare delivery system needs to be in good shape before we can start making all these judgments. There should be more funding, and patients should also have health insurance.
What was your mum’s initial reaction when you said wanted to become a psychiatrist?
My mum was very supportive, and she encouraged me to choose what would make me happy. I was very privileged in that regard, although there were some uncles who asked me to go into a more ‘respectable’ profession, such as obstetrics or paediatrics.
You were a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Bipolar Research Unit, United States of America. What were the lessons you brought home from there?
I did a research project on patients living with bipolar disorder, and I learnt that it is very important to feed research work into clinical practice. It is important to have research, teaching and clinical components, as they all work together and complement one another. The results of research should inform clinical practice.
Some people have linked bipolar disorder to mid-life crisis. Is that true in any way, and how can the ailment be managed?
Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness. ‘Bi’ means two. It means there are two poles. It is called that because the sufferers are depressed, which makes them to have low moods and energy, be irritable, have loss of interest in activities, and sometimes have suicidal thoughts because they feel life is not worth it. There is also what we call ‘manic episode’, which is a period when they are very happy, with increased energy. At one time, they could be down with depression; and at another time, they could up and excited.
It usually starts during adolescence and early adulthood. There are medications that can be used to manage it very well. There are mood stabilisers and other things that can be done to support patients.
People with mental illness are usually stigmatised. In what ways do you think this stigma can be curtailed?
The first thing we need to realise is that everyone needs mental healthcare. There are different kinds of mental illness, such as depression, anxiety and phobias. People with mental disorders who live on the streets are there because there is failure in their social network, which has fallen apart. However, if people with mental illness are brought in early for treatment and have a supportive social network, many of them will do well.
Your late father, Lt. Col. Victor Banjo, was executed because he was alleged to be involved in the coup against the late Biafran leader, Odumegwu Ojukwu. How did you receive the news of his death, considering that you were just three years old when it happened?
My father was arrested from work on January 17, 1966, after the first coup in Nigeria led by (Kaduna) Nzeogwu. He was not aware of the coup; and people, including those involved in the coup, said he did not know about it. He was initially put in a prison at Ikot Ekpene (in today’s Akwa Ibom), and was later imprisoned in Enugu State. When the war broke out, he was in Enugu. He was released from prison by Ojukwu. He fought for one Nigeria, in his own understanding, on the side of the Biafran army, because of certain beliefs he had, which was clearly stated in our jointly authored book, A Gift of Sequins: Letters To My Wife. The book contains his prison letters to my mother; and I added a prologue and epilogue. In the book, he stated that he was unhappy with the killings of the Igbos around the nation. He also wrote about northern domination of the nation. He believed in one Nigeria, which was stated in all the letters he wrote to my mum.
However, at a point, there was a disagreement between him and Ojukwu, who was his friend. We later learnt Ojukwu ordered his execution. At the time my father was executed, I was very young, and we (family) were already in Sierra Leone. My mother broke the news to us by telling us that ‘our dad had gone to be with Jesus’.
Your mother is from Sierra Leone. Have you ever thought of identifying more with her country?
Absolutely. We moved to Sierra Leone before the Nigerian civil war broke out, and we lived there for three years. However, my father wrote to my mum and told her to raise his children like Nigerians. In obedience to his wishes, we returned to Nigeria after the war. I speak my mum’s language. Anytime I meet Sierra Leoneans, I immediately break into Krio language, and identify with them. I visited the country last year, and I am supposed to go again this year.
With all you have achieved so far, what and who would you ascribe your success to?
God used my mother to support me, because she made a lot of sacrifices for her children. She became a widow at the age of 35, and she never remarried before she died at the age of 65. Also, she raised us in a very harsh environment. Till today, we never had had any communication about my father’s death from his employers. All we knew was that he left for work on January 17, 1966. We were not communicated with as regards his whereabouts. We don’t even have a death certificate. We don’t know where his remains are. It is very interesting that the person who ordered his execution was given a hero’s welcome back to this country, and also a hero’s funeral. But then, God is the ultimate judge. My mum made a decision that no one would separate her from her children.
My mother raised us to be very supportive of one another. I am where I am today by the grace and mercy of God.
I had always gone to church, but in 1987, I surrendered my life to Jesus Christ, and I have never looked back. I ascribe my success to God.
What other achievements do you aspire for?
(laughs) I will listen to God and He will tell me the next one. But, I believe Nigeria has a lot of potential and I look forward to a critical mass of people in the country who will stand for righteousness, justice and truth. In my own space, I want to participate in the building of this land, and the coming forth of a new Nigeria. I am ready to serve wherever God asks me to, without letting Him down.
How do you combine work with family?
There is time for everything. When my children were very young, there were several things I could not do. I spent a lot of time with them then. Looking back now, I have no regrets, because I believe I gave them all I could give them. I slowed down my career, so that I could give my children a solid foundation. At times when I was giving lectures, my children would be close by. Now, my children have grown and I have more time to move around. I also have a supportive husband.
Are any of your children following your career path?
In some ways, they are. One of my children is in the academia but not in medicine. She is presently rounding up her PhD in Sociology at the University of Cambridge, UK. We won a grant, and we are doing a joint project on self-employed young women in Nigeria and how to improve their mental health and wellbeing. She says that I am her number one mentor. I also have a son who has a PhD in Electrical Engineering.
What are your most memorable moments as a psychiatrist and provost?
I work with children and adolescents, and I have had some great successes with young people, who came in depressed and shattered by the problems in their homes. Through family therapy and treatment, they were able to get back on track. I find that so fulfilling.
I also work with children from difficult backgrounds. Several of my former students are now doing wonderful things. The current director of the Centre for Child and Adolescent Mental Health, Dr Tolulope Bella-Awusah, is one of them.
Another is Dr Jibril Abdulmalik, the Chief Executive Officer of ASIDO Foundation (a not-for-profit mental health advocacy organisation. Dr Yetunde Adeniyi, the Chief Executive Officer of the Centre for Early Development, Learning and Care, is also my mentee. They are all working with me now.
I have mentees all over Africa, and one of them married my daughter. His name is Dr Kwabena Kusi-Mensah. He is a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Ghana. If I leave this system now, I have people that will continue the work. My mentees are forging their own paths, and that is my greatest success.
As a provost, some of my memorable moments are when we are releasing students who have completed their work into the world. I remember on August 1, 2022, we held a fundraising event for a student’s hostel, which is supposed to house 600 students. One of my classmates from medical school, Prof Philip Ozuah, who was the chief launcher and keynote speaker at that event, pledged the sum of one million dollars towards the project. Some of my other classmates and several alumni have also donated towards the project.
What are your other areas of interest?
I sing, and I actually have a few compositions. I also spend time reading the word of God and worshiping Him.
How do you like to dress?
I love ankara dresses a lot. Any time I go for international conferences, I always wear local outfits. I love to project Nigerian and African styles.