A focus on well-being in West Africa

August 12, 2022

STUDENT EXPERIENCE

Godfrella Jonat-George, a University of Richmond senior, is determined to eliminate the stigma of mental health treatment in her home country of Sierra Leone. It’s a problem she’s experienced first-hand.

Her mother died of an undiagnosed illness, and her father, a doctor, died while treating patients for the Ebola virus that devastated West Africa in 2014. Shortly after their passing, she was in a near-fatal car accident and was hospitalized for more than five months.

As the Ebola virus was raging, she sat alone in the hospital, recovering from the accident. She was not allowed to have visitors during her stay and relied on phone calls from her grandmother, and her faith, to get her through.

“It sounds strange, but losing my parents made me find myself,” Jonat-George said. “I grew so much from that experience. I trusted that everything was going to be okay. I just had that peace within me. And those experiences changed me.”

She knew she wanted to finish school and pursue a career as a psychologist to make mental health care more accessible in Sierra Leone. 

This summer, she is interning at the Western Area Rural District Council in Sierra Leone, about an hour outside of Freetown, the nation’s capital, where she grew up. She is working with the local government to improve infrastructure in schools and health facilities. She says the struggles she faced during her childhood in West Africa showed her the need for access to mental health care there.

“When I lost my parents and was recovering from the car accident, I did not get professional help,” she said. “What if you don't have family? What if you're not a believer? What do you do then? I want to create more professional spaces that people can go to in Sierra Leone to get help.”

Jonat-George is pursuing a double major in economics and psychology to help make that dream a reality. She plans to attend graduate school to become a professional psychologist, and work with local governments in Sierra Leone to make psychological services more widely available and eliminate any shame that may be associated with them.

“I am really grateful to all the people who have helped me get to where I am,” she said. “I see a lot of people who, on the outside, seem like they're okay, but on the inside, they're struggling. They're not living their best lives because they have trauma that they have to recover from, and I want to help them overcome that.”