While at university in Nigeria, Paula Aliu noticed that mental health was rarely spoken about. Peers and community members who suffered from PTSD, anxiety, or depression hid their struggles, or were treated for spiritual ailments by well-meaning but uninformed family members. Suicide was rarely discussed as suicide.
“Many people aren’t aware that if someone is acting strange, it does not necessarily mean the person is possessed by the devil or a demon,” Paula says. “They don’t know that there are people that can actually help you.”
In Nigeria, the problem is compounded by the fact that access to therapists is limited. Hospitals and institutions focus on treating patients with severe psychiatric disorders, and many people avoid seeking help for fear of being stigmatized.
Paula wondered, what if accessing mental health services could be easy, confidential, and affordable? “I thought, hey, I’m a developer,” Paula reflects. “I can tackle this. I’ve often described myself as ‘constructively lazy.’ Because I look for ways that technology can do the work and make things easier for people.”
Launched this year, Paula’s solution, Cogno-Aid, lets patients conveniently and privately connect with licensed mental health practitioners through a web application. With instant messaging and online voice and video calls, Cogno-Aid means anyone can easily consult with a therapist without fear of being stigmatized.
The entrepreneur’s journey can be tough work. So what does Paula do to nurture her own creativity, despite obstacles? Practicing self-care is one thing. “When I’m feeling down, I leave what I’m doing and get an ice-cream–whisky flavored ice-cream,” she says. “Also, exercise, when I’m in the mood, and sleep. The next day, I feel better.”
Paula Aliu was awarded a Microsoft #Insiders4Good Fellowship, part of a new initiative at Microsoft designed to support promising entrepreneurs with extraordinary solutions to social problems.