Online therapy bridges mental health care gap

Survivor of mental health problems has innovated way to help others

In Summary

• Moses Aiyenuro is promoting mental well-being through his app, Blueroom Care

• Here, users can connect with a licensed therapist from the comfort of their phones

Illustration of mental health problems and online therapy
Illustration of mental health problems and online therapy

When Moses Aiyenuro fell into a depression in 2019 after failing his engineering exams, he was unable to access mental healthcare.

"My life turned around. I felt like a failure. I withdrew from people," he said.

Luckily for him, he came into contact with a trained therapist, and they started talking online via WhatsApp.

"After talking with her, I felt good and then later thought, 'How can I replicate this?' I did a survey with my phone contact list and found that about 65 per cent had issues but couldn't contact family and would have wanted to talk to a therapist," Aiyenuro said.

The results of his snap survey brought him to the realisation that many people were silently battling depression and not speaking out due to fear of stigmatisation.

The inaccessibility of mental healthcare was also not restricted to his phone contacts list.

Across Nigeria, mental health services remain unaffordable and inaccessible. As a result, many people resort to simply living with untreated mental disorders or visiting traditional or religious leaders for treatment.

Taiwo Obindo, chairman of the Faculty of Psychiatry, West African College of Physicians, Nigeria Chapter, says over 60 million Nigerians suffer from various mental illnesses. Only about 10 per cent of them can access appropriate care.

"We are left with more than 90 per cent who are unable to access care, and this group is called the treatment gap for mental illnesses," Obindo told the News Agency of Nigeria in an interview.

He said the few available mental health facilities are in city centres.

"60 per cent of Nigerians live in the rural areas. They do not have access to appropriate care and have to travel long distances to access facilities," he said.

To help solve this challenge, Aiyenuro created a WhatsApp group in 2021 to provide mental health tips, initially to the people in his network.

"It was a test run stage. I wanted to see the feedback I would get before launching something bigger," the 26-year-old said.

"Thankfully, people joined the group and were willing to share their problems and seek help in the group."

In no time, around 80 people had joined the WhatsApp group. But Aiyenuro still desired to make a more significant impact.

Aiyenuro met Ebunoluwa Collins on the platform. The graduate of psychology from Covenant University Nigeria was avidly contributing and sharing mental health tips with the group.

"I found her diligence and commitment inspiring. So, after learning she was a professional counsellor, I reached out to her and asked her to be a co-founder," Aiyenuro said.

Eventually, in 2022, Aiyenuro and Collins launched Blueroom Care App to make mental healthcare available to everyone in Nigeria.

"I wanted to create a platform that would make it easy and convenient for anyone to access mental health services, regardless of their location or financial situation," he said.

The app, which already has a 5.0 rating on the Google Playstore, has been lauded by many health practitioners who see the idea as a reliable and improved way of tackling the scourge of mental illnesses.

Barry Takpo, a mental health expert, commended the initiative and hopes the platform gets more visibility.

"I love it. It was designed to help users improve their emotional well-being, become more mindful and address common mental health issues," Takpo said.

"It's good to see such tech ideas coming out of Nigeria. Now people can get mental health care from the comfort of their homes."

Upon downloading the Blueroom Care App, users have to answer a short series of questions, after which they are matched with a certified therapist to attend to them.

The assessment questions are designed to provide one's therapist with a broader and more accurate perspective of the person.

"We currently have about 12 therapists across West Africa. We also have professional counsellors who help us recruit the therapists and do background checks before onboarding them on the platform," Aiyenuro said.

Sessions can be held virtually via calls or texts at the user's request.

"Before therapists sign up on our platform, we require their licences and other documents for proof of identity and certification," he said.

"Our clinical team reviews applications weekly. If they succeed in the application, the onboarding team will contact them via email and conduct an assessment via Zoom."

Users can be anywhere, even in rural areas. To track their progress, the users can set up short-term and long-term goals and keep reviewing to see if their targets are met. If not, they can change their psychologist at no cost.

While Blueroom Care started as a free service, it now costs $10 (₦5,000) per week. Aiyenuro hopes to make the app free again when he gets proper funding.

More than 2,000 people have downloaded the app to access mental health care.

Sunmisola Sharon shared her observations after using the platform.

"The app is quite straightforward. I have used it for a while and the process is not complicated. It is way better than sulking inside your room," she said.

Aiyenuro hopes his initiative will maintain positive mental health behaviours, recognise mental disorders and reduce stigma towards mental disorders. He aims to get up to 12,000 users by the end of 2023.

He hopes to find collaborators and get grants to eventually push his initiative across Africa and help the many young people struggling with mental health problems.

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