The first in a series of articles for Black History Month 2023.
Jenny Okolo is an NHS Occupational Therapist who works in forensic mental health. As a black professional in a sector that has lacked diversity, she is not only leading the way for others to follow but playing an important role in removing stigma around mental health and encouraging empathy.
From a young age, Jenny was aware of the significance of mental health. Family members were affected by psychosis and neurodevelopmental conditions, and this helped drive Jenny’s passion for caring for others.
Jenny always knew that she wanted to work in healthcare of some sort but it was her experience as a student at Oxford Brookes that led her to work in mental health.
Studying Occupational Therapy at Brookes
Getting to Brookes in the first place had been eventful. A broken-down coach, with Jenny en route from her home in London to an interview for the course, seemed to have scuppered her plans. But a combination of perseverance and, perhaps, fate got her onto the BSc Occupational Therapy (OT) course.
“Brookes was always my first choice,” explains Jenny, “I’d done my research, spoken to lecturers and I knew it was a top university for OT. But then my coach breaks down, I’m an hour late and quite sure that I wouldn’t get my place.
“I’d missed the group interviews but they still let me in. Afterwards, when I was offered a place on the course, I thought to myself, ‘this is it!’”
A lot of people don’t realise that Occupational Therapists can work in mental health. For Jenny, it was a work placement that opened her eyes to that possibility. She enjoyed it so much that she requested another placement in a mental health setting.
“In my final year I was able to do my placement at Broadmoor Hospital. It was the best placement I ever had, and solidified my interest in wanting to work in forensic mental health. I’m really grateful to the University and especially my tutor, Ka Yan Hess, for making that placement happen and giving me the courage to push forward with it.”
Working in forensic mental health
Jenny’s work in forensic mental health covers conditions ranging from schizophrenia to personality disorder, depression and substance misuse. A lot of her work is with people who have a criminal background or are currently in prison.
“My role helps them rebuild skills they might have lost whilst being in the criminal justice system and being unwell. I also support them with reintegration into society to stop the cycle of reoffending. It can be very difficult for them to find a job and get into a meaningful routine.
“It’s very challenging work, working out how to help them on that journey. But very rewarding, it has opened my eyes to a different world.
“One thing I found, when I started working more closely with the criminal justice system, was this huge problem with under-diagnosis or no diagnosis at all for those who were clearly on the spectrum or had some sort of neurodevelopmental condition that wasn’t addressed.
“So, I’ve been working alongside prison governors and charities to create more awareness around neurodiversity within the prison system.”
Raising awareness of neurodiversity and mental health
Mental health issues disproportionately affect black and ethnic minority communities, and neurodiversity all too often goes undiagnosed. Jenny believes that professionals, such as herself, working in partnership with communities is vital to addressing the problem – and that’s something that needs better funding.
“We need to demystify the stigma around black mental health. A huge number of black people are being detained in the mental health system. We need to have more conversations about this.
“And there are so many in the criminal justice system who have no diagnosis and very little information about their history. That makes it so hard to know what the problem is and find out what’s really happened.
“From my point of view, it’s early intervention that’s missing. What I’d like to see is full funding for outreach work – going into schools, working with community services to target issues earlier on. I try to do as much as I can in my community, not just in my workplace, to spread awareness and understanding.”
Challenging a lack of diversity
Jenny’s place on both sides of the conversations around addressing black mental health issues gives her valuable and important insights. But a lack of ethnic diversity in her profession is one of the obstacles to improving black mental health. It’s a problem she feels is slowly improving.
“When I started out, there just weren’t people who looked like me in senior positions. As a profession, Occupational Therapy has been around for a while but in terms of diversity it is still catching up. It’s definitely something that worried me and was at the forefront of my mind.
“Just before I graduated. when I started thinking about what kind of jobs to apply for, I joined networking forums, trying to make sure I had that diverse community to reach out to. It was a challenge, a real challenge to my mentality but something I knew I had to face.”
Bridging a gap between professionals and communities
Jenny is using her skills to bridge the gap between clinical knowledge and perceptions of mental health. She founded SASA Mental Health to help people understand their neurodiversity and mental health needs.
“There’s a lot of misconception and stigma, and lack of education around how to seek help with mental health. SASA is a service where we screen people. I specialize in sensory profile assessments, focusing on people with neurodevelopmental conditions who might have sensory needs. We also do mental health assessments for those who have issues around functional needs.
“It’s a way for me to give back to the community, working alongside other people and charities who do events and workshops as well to spread the knowledge. And also support people who don’t have thousands of pounds to spend on an assessment.
“One thing I’m very aware of is that the waiting list to get an ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) assessment is super long and going private can be extremely expensive. So, we’re providing people with an option.
“We’re a small team. But I see us growing within the next couple of years and reaching more people.”
Talking to the world about empathy
Jenny believes empathy is key to supporting people with mental health issues – the importance of recognising differences in a non-judgemental way.
“Having empathy is not always about knowing the full picture but it is about being willing to understand. People will have different views, depending on their cultural background – families who come from Nigeria and Spain, for example, may have totally different ideas of what mental health actually is.
“It’s not to dismiss how they’ve been brought up or the things they believe in. It’s about how we can work together to ensure that their loved ones and our patients get the best treatment they can.”
You can watch Jenny talking about the importance of empathy in her TED Talk – something that was the fulfilment of a long-held ambition.
“I wrote it down somewhere: I would do a TED Talk one day. It’s ironic because I was a very quiet, shy person but I would dream of myself speaking on stage. For it to actually happen was a massive thing for me. It felt that my two worlds – personal and professional – were aligned.
“I spoke about forensic mental health, looking at black people and diversity. The things I’ve worked so hard for, I was able to bring onto stage and share with the world”
Looking to the future
As Jenny looks to the future – growing SASA Mental Health, educating people, outreach work in communities and schools, and speaking and advocating for those who don’t have a voice – she is clear about the importance of making a real difference to people’s lives.
“It’s really important we, society, is moving forward. Conversations are being had around mental health and I want to make sure people’s stories are heard and listened to. Now, it’s about putting those ideas into action to actually make tangible differences.”
Black History Month at Oxford Brookes
Oxford Brookes University is proud to celebrate Black History Month in October 2023. The theme for this year’s programme is “Celebrating our Sisters”.