World Mental Health Day on October 10 brings some insight into the mental health challenges people face in Zambia and the stigma surrounding the topic. Although people are getting more comfortable with discussing mental health this has not always been the case.
Doctors specialising in mental healthcare were rare; at some point Zambia only had one qualified psychiatrist. It was this lack of adequate support to people suffering from mental health problems that led Dr Maria Akani to specialise in the field.
“My inspiration to study medicine and psychiatry came from a deep desire to help people, and I found that mental health is a confluence of my talents, skills and natural abilities,” she explains.
Dr Akani is a skilled psychiatrist and neuropsychologist. Before becoming a medical practitioner, she studied medicine at the University of Zambia, an experience she describes as extremely tough but also fun and fulfilling.
“My favourite years of growing up were definitely in medical school. I was never an ‘all work but no play’ person, I made friends, went to parties and I was even selected to be part of the leadership of the Christian student’s body. I really blossomed in medical school.”
After obtaining her medical degree, Dr Akani went on to get two Master’s degrees, one in clinical neuropsychology and the other in psychiatry.
She is also a managing partner of a practice called Renaisense, which offers services to people facing mental health challenges.
“We facilitate life transformation through counselling, psychotherapy, coaching and training,” she explains.
Through her practice, Dr Akani can fulfil her desire to help people. She deals with a wide range of clients and thoroughly enjoys her job.
“I love that through my job I can bring hope, restore dignity, facilitate change and promote reconciliation in people.”
While Dr Akani makes a lasting impact in her patient’s lives, her job does have its downsides. She does face some challenges.
“There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. Every person and situation is different and brings new challenges. Also trying to keep up-to-date with the latest research and interventions and modifying them to make them relevant to clients does present a challenge,” she says.
Although Dr Akani has achieved a lot in her career, including running her own practice, she still feels she has a lot more to do.
“My dream is to change the landscape of mental health in Zambia into something that is considered basic care rather than an accessory medical service. I’m doing my part to help people realise that there can be no real health without sound mental health.”
Dr Akani’s efforts were recognised at the Anakazi Women of the Year Awards where she received the Woman of the Year Award in medicine.
“Getting the Woman of the Year Award meant a lot to me. It was a big boost for me to continue working hard to increase mental health awareness and help people struggling. I feel like I can do so much more.”
Stanbic Bank, through its Anakazi Banking initiative, hosted the Anakazi Women of the Year Awards in March to celebrate exceptional women who are making a difference in various fields of work.
Anakazi Banking was introduced by Stanbic Bank in 2017 and focuses on both increased access to finance and capacity building activities for women entrepreneurs.
These platforms include training, mentorship and networking events to build knowledge in business management and access to markets, as well as assistance in business formalisation.