“Growing up in our small village in southeastern Nigeria, I never dreamed I would be on a plane to Nigeria with the President of Yale,” muses Theddeus Iheanacho. Last year, Iheanacho joined President Peter Salovey to formalize The HAPPINESS (Health Action for Psychiatric Problems in Nigeria including Epilepsy and Substances) Project. A partnership between the department of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and Imo State University, Nigeria, The HAPPINESS Project focuses on increasing access to evidence-based treatments for mental, neurological and substance use disorders using the World Health Organization (WHO)’s standards.
The road that led Iheanacho to that career highlight was challenging and borne from a desire to help women achieve equality in many areas, including health care. The first son among eight siblings (three older sisters and four younger brothers) in rural Nigeria – where he walked 10 miles once a week to fetch water -- Iheanacho saw the stress and inequity of being a woman from the daily lives of his mother and sisters. “What I witnessed drove me to think about what I could do to help women have control over their own lives and health.” After medical school, Iheanacho went to work for a Nigerian nonprofit organization that assisted with getting low-income women access to contraception – to which the Nigerian government provided limited access or support at the time. “Husbands didn’t want their wives to take birth control, they viewed us as enemies because we were giving women power over their bodies,” he says. “We had machetes in the clinics for protection in case husbands came in angry.”
Iheanacho left Nigeria for opportunities in Ireland and the United Kingdom expanding his field of work to include infectious diseases and psychiatric training and was overwhelmed by all the resources available in other countries. Now at Yale, he focuses on finding new ways to bring treatments and interventions to those in underserved communities. “We know what works but people that need it the most are the ones with the least access to care, even in the United States.” His focus went back to the limited resources in Nigeria with a new mission – providing assistance for those affected with mental health issues. “In Nigeria, those with mental health issues are stigmatized and often in danger of being assaulted, even killed on the street. We needed to invest in them by offering treatment that was not only accessible but realistic to their everyday lives.” Using sustainability as a driving force in program development, Iheanacho partnered with churches and community centers to integrate mental health screenings to reach those who cannot or would not visit a clinic.
He accompanied President Peter Salovey to meet with officials in Nigeria and finalize plans to bring the HAPPINESS program to all primary care facilities in Imo State, and eventually to other Nigerian states. That trip did more than just expand the program, Iheanacho says that trip conveyed to the people that talking is more important than worrying about a stigma. “What they saw was so important – a University president from the U.S. coming to see them to talk about topics that they are ashamed to discuss.” Since the program started, he says one of the significant advances has been getting patients to see that treatment is good and it works. Mental health is not a death sentence and is okay to discuss. “They see the evidence; they see people get better.”
When asked what he would consider success, Iheanacho goes back to the initial reason he pursued global health – to see people in need, particularly women, have access to health care. “The more I can make that happen the better I feel.”