Pharmacist and CEO of Merck Foundation Dr RashaKelej, has made it her mission to raise awareness about the discrimination, stigma and ostracism women undergo for their inability to have a child. Here she discusses with SunHealth how her foundation is empowering women across Africa and other developing countries.
Dr Rasha Kelej, you are CEO of Merck Foundation, can you start by introducing the Foundation for us?
Merck Foundation is the philanthropic arm of Merck KGaA Germany. It is non-profit organisation that aims to improve health and wellbeing of people and advance their lives through science and technology. Our efforts are primarily focussed on raising awareness about non-communicable diseases, empowering women and youth, improving access to innovative healthcare solutions in under-served communities, building healthcare and scientific research capacity in the fields of diabetes, hypertension, cancer and fertility care in underserved communities. Our vision is to see a world where everyone can lead a healthy and fulfilling life.
You will be launching the ‘Merck More Than a Mother’ campaign in Botswana in 2019. Can you discuss when this launch is expected to happen and what it will entail?
We will launch in Botswana sometimes in the first quarter of 2019 in partnership with Her Excellency First Lady of Botswana Madam H.E. NEO JANE MASISI, and ministry of health of Botswana. We will first launch the Merck more than a Mother campaign with Her Excellency as the Ambassador with the aim to empower infertile women through information, health and change of mindset.
As part of the campaign we will call for application for media recognition award of Merck more than a Mother. And we will also train media about health reporting and sensitive issues reporting such as infertility. We will also launch the start of producing a song about infertility stigma and sensitising the community to break its stigma.
In addition to providing training to doctors in the fields of fertility care and oncology we will also launch a pilot project called blue points where we will provide one year diabetes diploma to doctors to build Health care capacity in the country. Our vision is to develop a strong platform of specialised doctors to improve access to quality and equatable healthcare solutions in Botswana.
When did this campaign start? … What makes “Merck more than a mother” such a unique campaign and how do you hope it will be embraced by relevant stakeholders?
We started Merck more than a mother campaign in 2015 first in Kenya then Uganda and the rest of 35 countries in Africa and Asia.The campaign is an exponential success, the ambassadors of Merck more than a mother, The First Ladies of many countries, are very active and increasing every year. We have partnered with ministries of health and academia of many countries who are working closely with us.
The social media followers and videos viewers are in millions. Merck Foundation has trained more than 100 fertility specialists over the last two years in more than 30 countries in Africa and Asia. Thousands of women are sharing their stories of suffering every day; African media has started to discuss the issue every day, and we also worked with singers to write songs and produce video clips about infertility and delivering the message to all communities, since in many cultures infertile women suffer discrimination, mistreatment and physical and psychological violence. We have also supported the establishment of first ever Public IVF centres in Rwanda, Ethiopia and Uganda.
The Foundation seems to be so fond of Africa why the interest, many will ask? How do you settle on the choice of health needs or area and the countries that you engage with in Africa?
Prof Frank Stangenberg Haverkamp, the Chairperson of E-Merck KG and Merck foundation is very fond of Africa and believes in its potentiality. Furthermore, there are many challenges in Africa with regards to healthcare and this is our speciality we can help, and this is what we do and we do it well. But we also focus on Asia, we have programmes in many countries such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and Cambodia; and we will expand to Latin America in 2020.
There was also the first Merck Health Media Training in Kenya to break the stigma around infertility in Africa, may we know the reason behind the focus on infertility and liaising with the media?
According to WHO data 2016, one in every four couples in Africa and developing countries are infertile which means that there are 180 million couples that are infertile. Incidence is much higher than in Europe and developed countries which has around maximum 8% to 9%, very high percentage of infertility due to untreated infectious diseases which result from child marriage, unsafe abortion, unsafe delivery, STDs and genital mutilation. Hence prevention is very important.
More importantly, in many cultures women suffer discrimination, mistreatment and violence due to their inability to bear children, although 50% of infertility cases are due to male infertility, therefore we need to create a culture shift to respect women whether they are mothers or not, encourage men to speak up about their infertility and support their wives through the treatment journey. I strongly believe in the power of art and media.
They are critical partners to address such sensitive topics. We have produced many projects of songs, and now we are going to produce drama (plays and documentaries) with African talents across the continent. It will be the first and we will be creating a culture shift, raising awareness and exploring African talents.
We started “Merck More Than a Mother” campaign in 2015 now it is in 35 countries in Africa and Asia. In partnership with First Ladies who are the ambassadors in their respective countries, academia, ministries of health and international fertility societies, the initiative also provides medical education and training for fertility specialists and embryologists to enable them to help and treat infertile couples in their countries.
Also, part of the campaign is our Merck Embryology & Fertility Training Programme, a three-month hands-on practical course to establish the platform of fertility specialists across Africa and Asia. Merck Foundation provides clinical and practical training for fertility specialists and embryologists in more than 35 countries across Africa and Asia such as: Chad, Niger, Central African Republic, Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Nigeria, Benin, Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Guinea Conakry, Sierra Leon, Liberia, Cameron, Rwanda, Botswana, DR Congo, Congo Brazzaville, Gambia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Cambodia. So far more than 80 candidates have taken the training.
How do you envisage the future of health care in Africa and the partnerships that Merck Foundation is forging across the continent?
I think the future will be brighter if we cooperate together. The magnitude of the health challenges are very big to be addressed by one organisation. The secret is in the private public partnership and to really get things done by being hands-on. No time for talking anymore. We need to talk only when we talk about our impact and way forward.
Forgiveness is a virtue
It’s hard to get through life without experiencing some resentment. Executive Director – Phronesis International College (PIC) and Counselling and Psychotherapist, Peacebuilding and Life Skills Education Specialist Dr Thelma Kgakgamatso Tlhaselo-Majela discusses forgiveness and why letting go is good for you.
Forgiveness is a process that positions one on a healing path by choice in an attempt to resolve the psychological stress and trauma one could be experiencing. These pains and emotional injuries may stagnate one into feelings of anger, bitterness and resentment and in worse cases depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders. If left for long, protracted unresolved psychological distress and or trauma could deepen one more into multiple losses.
It may generate hatred and desire to cause harm on the other and this can throw one into revenge and or vengeance. Forgiveness then starts from the cognitive ability to choose letting go of the emotional and cognitive baggage thus granting the self or inner being power to constructively open portals of intrapersonal empowerment. Moreover, a well-integrated process of forgiveness could shift one into an empathetic and compassionate psychological space filled with virtue and psycho-sociological attributes of restoration that accentuate positive benefits of healing.
In your experience,what are the common issues that need forgiveness?
Life by nature is riddled with so many issues and challenges characterised by diversity and complexity hence appropriate understanding is very important. People are social beings that co-exist through healthy connectedness and this may happen at the physical, personal, socio-cultural, psychological, financial, spiritual; political level to mention a few.
We all need a deepened awareness on how the intra-personal (within self), inter-personal (with others), inter-group (within groups) and international (nation to nation) relational connections play out in life. These healthy relationships deserve to be developed, nurtured and protected lest they become dysfunctional and corrosive.
The common issues for forgiveness are varied and highly individualised. One person may look at what another is struggling with and may consciously or unconsciously belittle it because for them it appears an easy or small matter but people are unique and this deserves respect. The relational betrayals, emotional injuries, corrosive conflicts and intractable may result in residual emotions that can cause people to drift into anger and bitterness. In such accounts, people may find themselves responding through avoidance or seeking revenge which has the potential to cycle one back into deeper pain.
The complexity of forgiveness may originate from the nature and quality of the relationship one had, the nature of the wrong committed with the cognitive interpretations one ascribes to the event. This includes significant others such as spouses (couples), children, family relatives, colleagues, bosses and subordinates in the work place.
Sometimes, it may be people we do not know that have hurt us such as a murderer, rapist or an abuser and may not even acknowledge that they have done anything wrong to us. It may also be about the symbolic losses where the people and or situations to forgive do not physically exist such as a dead person or a geographic disconnection. In such cases, the existential reality of the phenomenon remains true, real and alive in the psyche of the emotionally injured person and requires a healing process.
Is it possible to forgive when one is still angry and can you forgive someone who does not think they have done anything wrong?
Forgiveness is a process that one does by choice for oneself and not for the perpetrator because one understands that the pain and suffering one is experiencing has a direct injurious effect on one’s life. Similarly, revenge and vengeance which for long has been one of the rudimentary human responses can only promote increased pain as it stagnates one into more hurt and pain.
It often cycles one back into psychological trauma hence one needs to perceive value addition in engaging in forgiveness because it can be logically and rationally incomprehensible when one is caught up in this quagmire. A bitter-angry person may grapple with cognitive dissonance which is an internal struggle to understand why they have to release someone who according to them deserves a punishment or better still refuses to acknowledge that they have done anything wrong.
But irrespective of the reason, holding on to anger, bitterness and resentfulness within the inner self can only grant one false gratification that they are holding the perpetrator to ransom. Needless to say, we have no control on how the other person thinks and feels and we may actually be subjecting ourselves to increased injury and punishment from the very issue we are contending with.
Seeking professional help will assist one to work through the psychological defence mechanisms such as denial, repression, rationalisation, reaction formation, regression to mention a few that may promote dysfunctional tendencies in un/forgiveness processes. Notwithstanding, people need to be assisted with respect for human dignity within them and never be forced and or coerced into forgiveness when they are not ready to do so. Given that anger will consume the person already holding the pain and hurt whether it is perceived or real, working on forgiveness can be a desirable option to open the healing process.
Can you discuss the rewards or benefits of forgiveness?
As can be seen, it often pays to work through forgiveness hence the concept of working it out because people respond to pain and trauma differently. The rewards and benefits shared in this context are not by any means exhaustive because there are several psycho-social models for assisting people to process forgiveness issues and this requires well trained service providers.
*People who are angry and bitter are often not desirable in social contexts because they may consciously or unconsciously spill this negative energy on other people and this tends to repel instead of attract social connections. At intra-personal level, we are likely not to find our inner life peaceful and enjoyable if we are ever stuck psychosocially on anger and bitterness because it may promote self-hate, poor self-concept and negative self-esteem. So it pays to be gentle to love yourself enough to desire good emotions about and towards other people for that will rub corrosively on your personal well-being. The benefits of forgiveness include enabling one to circumvent these psychological pains and trauma that can affect quality of life with self and others which may compound stress levels.
In extreme cases people may sink into depression and anxiety which could ripple into other areas of life such as sexual dysfunction, eating disorders, substance use and abuse, relational conflicts and psychosomatic illness. Forgiveness builds a healthy mindset and that attracts a healthy personality which consequently leads to healthy social and physical well-being. Forgiveness fills the inner space with good attributes and this is shared with others. We then by addressing forgiveness issues reduce on maladaptive tendencies and lift on psychosocial protection thus leading to safeguarding the intra-personal, familial, corporate and societal communities from effects such as divorce and relational stressors.
At corporate and industrial level, a socio-psychological space that is riddled with un/forgiveness is a breeding ground for visible and invisible costs. For instance, a huge cost can emanate from a collective environment that is unproductive because of collective stress and restlessness. A workplace where people are transparent and honest and regard others with respect to deserve forgiveness often tends to promote healing communities where others feel safe and do not fear hence they can work to the optimum level of their potential.
We also benefit as a nation when we are characterised by forgiveness because we have a strategic desire to promote a knowledge-based community as the foundation for transformational change. Botswana considers people as a reservoir for knowledge and wisdom to lead as change agents and if we are a community that is unable to work through issues of forgiveness, we may create or nurture a psycho-sociological space that disempowers collective construct for healing communities.
A Motswana who is able to forgive is likely to live with people from other backgrounds and has a healthy and broader capacity of dealing with diversity and differences with virtue and competencies for the 21st century to advance the nation at local, regional and international level.
Rabiya Mahomed-McGeoff: Talking Marriage and Family Therapy
Increased mental health awareness is leading to demand for therapists to serve couples and families. Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Lead Clinician, Rabiya Mahomed-McGeoff talks to SunHealth about being one of the most important confidants a person or family can have.
What is a Marriage and family Therapist?
A Marriage and Family Therapist is a mental health professional trained in psychotherapy and family system, and licensed to diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders within the context of marriage, couple and family system. A Marriage and Family Therapist treats a wide range of serious clinical problems including adult schizophrenia, depression, marital problems, anxiety, individual psychological problems and child parent problems.
How did you become a couple and family therapist?
When I did my undergraduate studies in Psychology, one of my professors was a Marriage and Family Therapist.
He introduced systems theories and they made sense to me. So I decided to pursue marriage and family therapy.I did my Bachelors in Psychology with a minor in Women Studies at University of Massachusetts. I did my Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy at Alliant International University in the US. After completing my Masters, I did clinical experience for two years, completing 3000 hours of direct client contact (which is a requirement in the State of California before one can seat for the licensing exams.)
I sat for the two exams and passed. I got licensed as Marriage and Family Therapist in California, USA.
What do you most enjoy about your work?
Giving clients hope, a voice, walking them through transitions and seasons in their lives and seeing them gain insight on their issues.
What is the most challenging thing about marriage and family counseling work?
The most challenging thing is when I work with teenagers where parents don’t want to get involved.
They just drop their children and expect me to fix their children. In most situations you find that parents are the ones with problems and are the ones who need therapy not the children.
What is the biggest myth about therapy?
That you only go to therapy when you have problems. That is not the case; therapy empowers and helps to facilitate personal growth in one’s life. For couples, therapy helps with tune in and awareness of issues before there is a problem.
It strengthens the family and the marriage bond. And also the assumption that therapy is free. I still get amazed by my educated friends who get shocked that therapy is a paid profession.
In general, what do specialists in this practice offer?
We offer couples therapy, individual therapy, child therapy, and group therapy on different issues; grieve therapy, premarital counseling, divorce mediation and recovery.
We consult for organisations on different issues including restructuring, retrenchment and workplace communication.
How do you stay detached from your counselling work? Is it even possible?
I have been practicing for more that 10 years now, throughout the years I have created some rituals that help me to transition from work to family life.
I have learned to set clear boundaries. At the end of my work day I put my phone on a silent mode for 30 minutes. I write down things that I have accomplished on that day and one thing that I am thankful for. I do basic breathing exercises. When I close my office door that’s the end of work – when I get in the car I listen to music until I get home.
What experiences are most useful for people becoming counsellors?
You need to be passionate, enjoy working with people and be willing to learn from your clients.
What seems to be the biggest obstacle for clients in therapy?
Not taking responsibility for the choices one has made over the years.
Mental health problems seem to be skyrocketing in our society lately? What are the reasons for this and what can be done about it?
I don’t think mental health issues are skyrocketing. Mental health issues have always been there. It is only that in our culture when we don’t understand something we find a way to label it. Mental health was often labeled as “botsenwa, mopakwane or boloi.”
There was a stigma for a person suffering mental health problem and their family. Often times they were ridiculed and treated as outcasts and shame to their families. Now people are beginning to be open about mental illness and it seems like it is skyrocketing because of the increased awareness.
We need to educate people more about mental health so that they can be aware and be sensitised on mental health issues.
That is a step to destigmatising mental health and learning the importance of early intervention, which can make a difference in one’s life.
If there is one thing you wished your clients or patients knew about treatment or mental illness, what would it be?
Mental health is a real illness. It’s not a character defect and it is okay to live with mental illness.
I have heard that after a couple has a child, which is notably one of the happiest times in anyone’s life that the satisfaction and overall happiness in the marriage can dramatically decrease. Is this true, and why is this? What can couples do to sustain their marital happiness after children?
Having a child is a transitional time in a couple’s life. The reason why it feels like a couple’s happiness has decreased is that the couple did not prepare for the transitional period and therefore they don’t know how to behave, or support each other with the introduction of this new person in their lives.
It is important for the couple to prepare for this period. This is another time in a couple’s life where couple’s therapy is necessary to help process and explore different ways of preparing for the anticipated additional member of the family.
The challenging thing in this transitional stage is that one partner takes a back seat while the other one is the driver of all things baby.
It is a normal transitional challenge and with preparation and awareness it can be handled better to ensure that the fire keeps burning.
What do you do to personally cope with stress in your life?
I pray, read, exercise, spend time with the people I love, balance family life and work life.
If you had your schooling and career choice to do all over again, would you choose the same professional path? If not, what would you do differently and why?
I will do it all over again. I feel honoured and humbled when people come to my office and choose to trust me with their inner fears. It often gives me joy to see them walking away with a smile.
As a therapist I make a difference in people’s lives.
What is the best advice you can offer to readers on leading a meaningful life?
Be true to who you are as a person.
FROM GRASS TO GRACE
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