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Health Fellow Spotlight: Maymunah Yusuf Kadiri

Meet Maymunah Yusuf Kadiri (aka Dr. May), a 2024 Aspen Ideas: Health Fellow and the Psychiatrist-In-Chief at Pinnacle Medical Services, Nigeria’s leading mental health center. Learn how she's using innovative technology to democratize access to mental healthcare for developing countries.

  • June 18th 2024

Tell us about your big idea!

Globally, 1 in 4 people will have a mental health challenge in their lifetime, with depression being the highest burden of disease. Having one psychiatrist to a million Nigerians leaves critical medical manpower shortages for mental healthcare services. I am working to eliminate all the barriers to accessing support with HOWBODI – a digital mental health company leveraging technology to democratize access to mental healthcare for developing countries. The integrated telehealth platform provides 24/7 access to mental healthcare from the comfort of a patient’s phone, computers, and walk-in mobile counseling booths that are solar powered, which help to reduce the time of diagnosis and treatment by more than 80%.

You’re known as “Africa's Premier Celebrity Shrink”. How are you using your platform to reduce stigma around mental health care in Nigeria and across the African continent?

I am actively using my various platforms and influence as the VOICE for Mental Health to reduce stigma and discrimination around mental health in Nigeria and across the Africa continent. With my online health radio, Pinnacle Health Radio, by participating in various radio shows, hosting a weekly television program on my talk show "The Physicians", weekly columnist on a BusinessDay National newspaper, guest on several podcasts, hosting webinars, using my social media platforms, and being the convener of The Mental Health Conference, TMHC, to discuss mental health topics, dispel myths, and encourage other role models to share their stories so the society can collectively benefit. These platforms allow me to reach a broader audience and normalize conversations about mental health.

I have also produced 2 movies, PEPPERSOUP; with focus on drug abuse and LITTLE DROPS OF HAPPY; with focus on depression, post-partum depression and suicide, MINDFUN; mental health board game, and DEEPER EXPRESSION; conversation cards game to drive home my message in normalizing mental health conversations.

I also organize workshops and seminars in schools, workplaces, and community centers to educate people about the importance of mental health and how to seek help. These events are helping to foster a supportive environment and encourage open dialogue. By doing this, I have been able to influence policies that have positively led to Nigeria having a Mental Health Act in 2023.

Given that HOWBODI operates mainly in rural communities, what are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in delivering quality care?

Our biggest challenge so far is financing. The HOWBODI booth operates by securing sponsorship from individuals, organizations, institutions, or governments to fund the setup and maintenance. This allows community members to use the booth for free. To sustain this model, we need to partner with sufficient sponsors to ensure the booths can be set up and maintained. Each booth costs approximately $2,000 to install with solar power and internet, plus an additional $2,000 annually for maintenance. A single booth can serve over 5,000 people per year, making it less than $1 per person.

Some of our biggest challenges operating in rural communities are connectivity issues; Rural areas often have limited or unreliable internet connectivity, which can disrupt services. Another is stigma and cultural barriers. Mental health stigma can be more pronounced in rural areas, where cultural beliefs and misconceptions about mental health care are prevalent. Another major challenge are issues relating to accessibility, reaching remote areas can be logistically challenging due to poor infrastructure and long distances.

Trust and relationship building has also been one of our biggest challenges. Building trust with the community can be difficult, especially if people are unfamiliar with telemedicine or skeptical about its effectiveness.

When a patient walks into a HOWBODI Mobile Counseling Booth, what do they experience?

When a patient walks into our Mobile Counseling Booth, they expect a well-structured and supportive experience designed to provide convenient and confidential mental health care. The patient sits comfortably in a fully soundproof booth. They pick up the tablet in front of them and read the instructions to start a session. The conversation remains completely private. The therapist, located anywhere in the world, accepts the call, and the consultation begins. Patients have three options to connect with a therapist: chat, audio call, or video call.

How do you see AI impacting mental health care? What are the positives, and do you have any concerns?

AI is transforming the mental health sector by offering insights that can enhance patient care. It influences help-seeking behaviors and facilitates access to support and resources. However, it also introduces ethical considerations, risks, and complex challenges. At HOWBODI, we have recently developed our own AI model called Zainab, a mental health buddy. Zainab acts as a friend to users, answering their basic mental health inquiries.

Since launching HOWBODI, what kind of feedback have you received from both patients and the broader healthcare community?

Since inception, we have received extensive feedback and continuously implemented it to improve our solution. HOWBODI began as a mental health quiz app, but based on user feedback, we added teletherapy and, more recently, tracking features. We've also integrated AI to bring even more value to our users. The broader healthcare community embraces our efforts, especially in Africa, where there is a significant brain drain of doctors and mental health professionals. Any solution that expands access to healthcare, particularly mental health, is greatly welcomed.

What is your hope for the future of mental health care in Africa?

My hope for the future of mental health care in Africa is a comprehensive, inclusive, and culturally sensitive system that is accessible to all, reduces stigma, and provides high-quality care integrated with overall health services. By addressing these key areas, we can create a supportive environment that fosters mental well-being and resilience across the continent.


The views and opinions of the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.

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