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.
‘Cancer took away my boobs, not my life’
Sun Health: What events led up to your diagnosis, or, how did you discover that you were suffering from cancer?
Mpho Kgaodi:My journey with Breast cancer started in 2012. Around April I felt a lump on my right breast. It was not painful at all, just slightly itchy. It was on the upper part of my breast. I ignored it for about three days but it kept nagging me and then I decided to go see my doctor. He also confirmed that there was a lump on my breast He sent me for mammogram that confirmed an abnormality on the structure of my right breast. I then went to see him with the results and he informed me that there are two ways to test that lump – Biopsy, which meant that he will be taking a piece of that lump to send it to the laboratory for examination and the other option was to totally remove the lump, Lumpectomy. I decided that he removes the whole lump, because I really didn’t want that Lump on my breast.
SH: We know that about 10% of all breast cancers are hereditary. Are there other women affected in your family?
MK: I don’t know of any other woman or even man in my family who has had cancer, though it is hereditary.
SH: What were your first thoughts when you received the diagnosis?
MK: I cried for a brief moment. I was overwhelmed with emotions, fear of death. I quickly recovered from that dreadful thought and remembered that I have a great husband and three boys. I felt that I had so much to live for.The doctor informed me about the options I had regarding treatment and he gave me time to think about it. I drove back home to Lobatse and by the time I arrived at my house, I had already made up my mind that I am going for total removal of the breast. I broke the news to my family and they were just as shocked as I was when the doctor broke the news to me. I explained to them my decision to go for surgery and they were very supportive. Few weeks later, I went for a mystectomy.
SH: How long were you in treatment
MK: The surgery was followed by Chemotherapy. The first time I walked into the oncology centre, I found so many people there already. I then realised that I am not the only person with cancer, it is so many of us. It gave me strength and courage. I had heard that the side effects of chemo are brutal, seeing those people made me realise that if others can do it so can I. I decided to go for it as I had so much will and spirit to stay alive and raise my kids. After the second session of chemo, I started losing my hair, nail beds turned black. I was never discouraged though, despite my aching body and the constant nausea after chemo. I had six cycles of it. In 2013 around April again, I experienced severe pain on my left breast, but with no Lump. My doctor again recommended I go for a mammogram. It confirmed cancer which was still at stage 1. I then insisted that they remove the breast. I would lose both my breasts but I knew staying alive for my boys was more important. Other people thought the pain was psychological, and I knew what I felt and my mind was made up. I had the second mastectomy and had to go through another cycle of chemo which I completed. I am now on oral medication. I take my tablet daily. It is recommended that I take it for ten years. I have just started on my year 6 on the tablet. I do go for regular check ups, to establish if the cancer is not back.
SH: What helped keep your spirits up and gave you support during this period?
MK: A good friend of mine and colleague told me about Journey of Hope Botswana. He introduced me to them, and I had tremendous support from them. I also went to Cancer Association Botswana to introduce myself. My family has also been my backbone, supporting me through it all. I am so greatful. On days that my spirits are low, I always take my mind to positive thoughts. I try to remind myself of the good times, sometimes I even find myself laughing out loud.
SH: How has this affected you at a psychological level?
MK: My life has not really changed for the worst. Like the saying “when life gives you lemons, make lemon aid out of them”. I lost my job after the second diagnosis of cancer. While this affected my family financially I never got discouraged, as this gave me time to take care of my family. I am a full time stay home mom. I walk this journey with my family. My boys understand that I had Cancer but now I am okay. They sometimes check if I have taken my medication, and they would even ask about my next appointment. I am blessed to have them.
SH: Facing the diagnosis of breast cancer is one of the most feared experiences in our society. What has been your experience as you worked with communities through Cancer Association of Botswana (CAB)?
MK: Working with CAB has been eye opening. Through motivational talks and other actives like the annual stiletto walk, the message has been positively received. There is still a lot to be done though, especially to make people understand that breast cancer is NOT a death sentence. So many lives can be saved.
SH: Amongst raising awareness, cancer awareness month is about celebrating individuals like yourself and their triumphs over cancer. Is there anything you would like to say to the community of cancer survivors and women in general?
MK: I have learnt so much from being diagnosed with cancer. I appreciate life more. I never used go and see a doctor without any pains or any thing “wrong” with my body. Now I do it regularly and so far I always get a clean bill of health. I encourage everybody to do regular self -breast examination. It is easy, convenient, cost-effective and can really help with early detection. I believe there is a lot to be done as far as breast cancer awareness. Remember men can also have breast cancer.
To all those who are going through cancer at the moment, remember you are not alone. Let’s walk this journey together. Let’s walk with Hope, Courage and Strength. There is life after cancer. Cancer took away my boobs it did not take my life. As October is breast cancer awareness, let’s support those affected, honour the survivors and remember the fallen.
PINK RIBBON ALWAYS
Caroline Gartland speaks on Children and Mental Health
Tell us about yourself and your background
I’m originally from the UK but have been in Botswana for eight years so this is now home! I have a Combined Honours degree in Psychology an MSc in Mental Health and have had a pretty varied career.
I started off working with offenders doing rehabilitation programmes; went on to support the victims of domestic violence then ended up working in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services for the National Health Service.
I’ve done a lot of work, mainly voluntary, in different fields since being in Botswana but my passion is now Early Childhood Mental Health.
What does your work entail?
Early childhood mental health is mainly working with parents, caregivers and teachers to help them understand how children develop and the best ways to support their mental health and brain development as they grow. It’s about providing training and opportunities for families to bond with their children and introducing new ways of playing and interacting.
What sparked your interest in early childhood mental health?
Quite simply, having my own children! My daughter was born five years ago and I was fascinated watching her develop and grow. It occurred to me that the younger you begin to consider mental health and provide tools for resilience against life’s adversities, the better outcomes you are likely to have.
I began reading everything I could get my hands on, and completed a diploma in Infant Mental Health. I’ve worked down the lifespan but I feel I’m now where I belong, working with babies and young children.
What mental health issues have you observed in children in Botswana?
Mental Health is still stigmatised around the world and Botswana is no exception. Most people immediately think of mental illness, but mental health is about so much more; we all have mental health and some days we are fine and able to deal with life’s challenges and some days we need more support and tools under our belt to help us cope.
Young children can experience mental health problems. Anxiety is a common one, but we are more likely to focus on the behaviour we see rather than how the child is feeling. An anxious child who refuses to go to school may be labelled as ‘difficult’ or ‘naughty’ but what they are expressing is a painful emotion that they need help dealing with.
Describe one thing you find fulfilling and challenging about working in this industry.
Working with children and families is a pleasure and a privilege. To make life a little bit easier for someone is all that matters, you don’t have to be out there saving the world to make a difference.
My major challenge is time. I would love to do more, I’d love to do an MSc in play therapy and a couple of other therapeutic techniques I’ve come across in Europe but that gets put on hold as I focus on my own family and business.
Can you share an anecdote about how mental health consultation works?
I think that education, understanding and connection are the three keys to giving a child the best start in life. Led by that, SensoBaby provides classes in the community for parents and caregivers to connect with their infants.
We offer workshops on parenting and play to foster understanding of child development and wellbeing and we are available to troubleshoot specific problems an individual or agency has with the young children in their care or the systems they have in place. When it comes to individual parents, mostly what they need is to feel heard, supported and guided in their parenting choices.
You can read all the baby books in the world but they won’t give you the answers you need for your child, through responsive parenting and connection, you’ll find you have the solutions you need.
What advice do you have for child-care providers or early childhood teachers who are at their wits’ end over a child’s challenging behaviour but don’t have access to a consultant?
Empathy is an important and undervalued skill – the ability to consider another’s viewpoint. What is that child feeling? Their behaviour might be challenging and hard to deal with but often the root cause is an unmet need. There’s a famous quote from an American Clinical Psychologist, “The children who need love the most, will ask for it in the most unloving ways.”
Does a mother’s mental health affect her foetus? How important would you say is paying attention to women’s well being during pregnancy as with their physical well being?
100% yes. It is so important to support a woman’s wellbeing during pregnancy. As an example, if the mother experiences significant stress and rising levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) during pregnancy, the foetus will be affected and in some cases will be more sensitive to stress in childhood or later in life.
Pregnant women and new families (Dads as well!) deserve nurturing care themselves and shouldn’t be afraid to ask for support. SensoBaby run FREE monthly coffee mornings to support pregnant and new mothers because we understand the importance of maternal wellbeing.
Do smart phones and television make our children mentally ill as is often purported?
I don’t think technology is always the villain it’s made out to be. The key is in the relationship with that technology. Moderate use of TV’s and smart phones are fine, as long as they aren’t a substitute for outdoor play, imaginative play and meaningful interactions. If a child is crying or upset and we hand them a device to keep them quiet then we have missed an important opportunity for connection, helping them process what is going on and supporting them to calm down and settle themselves.
Now, I know you are involved in an exciting programme that helps caregivers and children to bond and get the children off to the best start in life through play. Can you say a little bit about that work and just how you are seeing it play out?
SensoBaby is our baby; a project born from passion and a desire to support families in Botswana. We offer play-based classes for children and their caregivers that are underpinned by the principles of child wellness as well as early foundations for learning.
When you provide developmentally appropriate opportunities to play, you learn so much about your child. That understanding and observation builds strong connections, which will form the basis of that child’s future relationships and self esteem. Play is so much more than ‘a fun activity.’
We offer a number of trainings and workshops for parents, nannies and community stakeholders and hope to increase our offerings this year. Our community partnerships and voluntary programmes have been successful so far and we hope to see more impact in 2018.
We currently serve the Gaborone community but would like to expand throughout Botswana as opportunities arise. The response to SensoBaby has been fantastic so far and we can’t wait to see how far we can go with the concept!