JaneMichael Ekanem: ‘I don’t think anyone should just associate mental illness with spiritual causes.’

JaneMichael Ekanem is a multiple award-winning celebrity stylist, designer, fashion entrepreneur, author, creative visionary, and mental health & wellness advocate. She is the Creative Director of the brand JaneMichael and Chief Creative Officer of the clothing brand – JaneMichael Collection & Easy Wear by JaneMichael.

JaneMichael Ekanem has distinguished herself as one of Nigeria’s most in-demand fashion expert and creative, with a company that includes the JaneMichael Brand. a fashion enterprise and the JaneMichael Foundation, a recently established not-for-profit organization.

In the year 2020, at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. JaneMichael suffered a mental breakdown. An incident that cost her friends, family, her sense of self, and everything she valued In our conversation with Her. JaneMichael discusses rebuilding her life, her healing journey, and her future plans. Despite all she’s been through, JaneMichael has refused to remain in the shadows of her experience knowing that the world needs more of her light.

You’ve been in the fashion industry for over 14 years. You have styled lots of celebrities, including Serena Williams for Essence’s Global Fashion Issue in 2019, Tiwa Savage, Yemi Alade, Nancy Isime, Do2tun, and a lot of A-list cinematographers and photographers. What have been some of your favourite experiences while working with such high-profile clients?
To be honest, I don’t have a particular experience that outweighs the others. Each job comes with its unique challenges and lessons, and I find satisfaction in successfully overcoming them. Most of the jobs I take on are quite challenging, and that is what keeps things exciting for me. Working with these celebrities has been an eye-opener, as I get to learn a lot from how they put themselves together, organize and strategize. There is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes that people don’t see on TV or social media. Working with high-profile clients has not only been great for my profile but it has also been a learning process. I have learned a lot from almost every client I have worked with, and that’s what makes this job truly fulfilling.

In addition to styling these A-list celebrities, you have also styled at several reputable fashion events, like the celebration of African Culture in 2018, which the President of France attended. Your tenure as the Head Stylist for the female contestants and host of Project Fame Africa spanned an impressive eight years, and you also served as the Assistant Head Stylist for the maiden edition of the GT Fashion Weekend, what inspires your creative process when styling for these prominent events?
What inspires my creative process is mostly paying attention to the client. Style is diverse, and you can’t use the same style for every client. Every person has a unique body type, complexion, charisma, and personality, so it is important to listen to my clients and make sure they’re as comfortable as possible. This enhances my creativity for the project, and then we amplify it to make it even better. I take some time to process my thoughts and the project, and I think about how I want it to feel, from the colours and fabrics to the location. Sometimes, outdoor locations work better, while other times, indoor locations are more suitable. So, to sum it up, the clients are my first point of inspiration before I start amplifying, and I enjoy what I do. I mean, what is the point of creating something your client wouldn’t be comfortable wearing in the first place? And of course, God is my number one source of inspiration.

In 2020, you encountered what we would term a difficult phase in your life and career, thus taking a necessary break that saw you leave social media for a while. You got back last year and have since started rebuilding, Can you share a little bit about what happened?
What happened to me on April 1st, 2020 was a mental breakdown. I was diagnosed with psychosis. Unfortunately, for some persons, there are no triggers but for mine, there were. There were a number of factors that triggered it, including issues with my design outlet at the time. The location wasn’t ideal, and some of my artisans were taking clients behind my back, charging lower rates and not delivering quality work while using my resources to complete the work they had taken behind my back. This was affecting my business, and I was struggling to keep up with rent payments and salary. At the time I was given a quit notice from my apartment, I was also given a quit notice from my factory. To add the icing on the cake, I was in debt to the bank for over 4 million naira, and they were calling me every other day. I also lost my then relationship about the same time all of these were happening. All of these things added up, and I couldn’t take the pressure anymore. I didn’t have a proper support system in place then and wasn’t seeing a therapist or getting any professional help. I became violent and started losing friends. It was a difficult time in my life, and I had to take a break from social media to focus on my mental health. Since then, I have been working on rebuilding my career and life, and I am grateful for the lessons I have learned from that experience.

Congratulations on receiving the Mental Health Ambassador of the Year award from the Mental Health Conference. How does it feel to be recognized for your contributions to the industry and advocacy for mental health?
Thanks for the congratulations! It was amazing to receive the Mental Health Ambassador of the Year award from the Mental Health Conference. Before receiving the award, I got an email notifying me that I would receive an honorary award for my efforts in the mental health awareness space. I was flabbergasted! It felt like I was being celebrated for literally losing my mind on social media. But all jokes aside, it was amazing to feel accepted and not judged for once. This was my first award in four years, so it was really special to me. Even though it felt uneasy and unexplainable, I am grateful to God for the recognition. I am still floating on cloud nine, and the benefits have been enormous, encouraging, and somewhat overwhelming.

What do you hope to achieve through your work as an advocate for mental health in the fashion industry? Do you have any upcoming projects or collaborations related to mental health advocacy?
My hope through my work as an advocate for mental health and wellness in the fashion industry is to make a positive impact in people’s lives. I definitely hope that the world will be a better place for everybody and everybody will be okay but you know, that is an impossible wish. However, in the little way that I can, I am hoping that I can help more people through this mental health journey because it is not an easy journey. While I was in the psychiatric hospital, there were people there who clearly had no hope. When I came out of the hospital a lot of people reached out to me way beyond the fashion industry so my contribution will not be limited to the fashion industry. It is about everyone who is going through this journey, no matter their age, sex, religion or country. I have seen people who have lost hope during my time in the psychiatric hospital, and it is my desire to help more people get through this.

I am currently working on building a foundation that will collaborate with international bodies to make it easier for Nigerians to access mental health resources. This is a big project that I am passionate about, and I am happy to say that it is going well so far. With the contributions of others, we have been able to help pay hospital bills and get medication for at least two patients. I believe that with increased awareness and support from international bodies, we can make a huge impact. So that’s my plan, and I am excited to see it come to fruition.

Let’s touch on Mental Health in Nigeria, which is usually either trivialised or spiritualised especially in this part of the world; what dangers do you think this carries and from your experience and learnings, what can you say about the young people going through it in this clime?
Response: Honestly, mental health is not given enough attention in Nigeria. It is a serious issue that affects one in every five people, yet people talk more about diseases like AIDS, cancer, and malaria. This is a dangerous trend that needs to be reversed. The average Nigerian is facing a mental breakdown, but instead of getting help, many people spiritualize it, trivialize it or even worse, they ignore it altogether. It is a real issue, and if it is not talked about, it will keep eating up our society. Education is key, and we need to spread more awareness about mental health to encourage more people to get involved. Sadly, many young people in Nigeria are depressed and struggling with their mental health, which is leading to a lot of suicides. Social media can play a negative role in this, and as someone who has been on social media, I know firsthand how overwhelming it can get. Sometimes you need to shut down for a while, whether it is for days, weeks or even months to control your mind and mental health. Personally, I had to shut down for years because it can be really overwhelming

The road to recovery from a mental breakdown typically involves medication, therapy and the like, but asides your prescribed medication, what has helped you pull yourself out of that dark place?
Recovery from a mental breakdown goes beyond medication and therapy. It can get to a point where the word ‘therapy’ begins to sound like a broken record, but it is still worth repeating. Before my mental breakdown, I was losing faith in the existence of God. I used to question why bad things happened if God was real. However, during my breakdown, I decided to give hope and therapy a chance, and it paid off. Today, I can testify that God is real because of the love people showed me. It started with the biker chicks who supported me by helping with my medications and sending money for toiletries and subscriptions. My brother-in-law also paid for my initial hospital bills. Additionally, friends reached out to me from time to time, and God sent an angel in human form who had been there since 2018. He reached out to me for almost two years after the breakdown until God laid it on my heart to respond to him. He was very polite, and I could see that he wasn’t just a social media bug. Looking at the previous conversations we had, I realized that he had been a source of positivity for me. This helped me start an interesting journey in my recovery, and I was able to pull myself out of the dark place with intense care and support. That’s why I am very sensitive to people who have mental health issues, and I try to reach out and do my best to help because I know what it feels like to have someone to care. I still find myself sharing even when funds are not really sufficient for me because you never know how far these little things can go.

You are passionate about fashion. How has your experience, taking the much-needed break rebuilding, affected or influenced your work as a creative?
The truth is I didn’t take a break to rebuild. I took a break because it was the only thing I could do. There was no hope of resources anywhere. I was taken to Sangotedo which was almost totally inaccessible and I didn’t have a choice at that time because my sister needed to monitor me and she lives in Sangotedo as well. The only option was for her to rent an apartment for me and my mum close to her for easy accessibility. My sister had to keep Willy my dog because I didn’t have the means to cater for him. Anyone who knows me definitely knows that my dog and I were inseparable. So you can imagine my emotional support being taken away from me. It was really tough. At some point, I didn’t see any light in the tunnel. To be honest, there was no hope for me. Because I lost everything, all my sewing machines, my fabric, chairs and even my clothes. As a matter of fact, I was shuffling 2 of my mum’s clothes for 2 years. I didn’t know where I was going to start from. No form of investment, no land and I was even owing the bank. I couldn’t go to any bank for a loan because they would check my records through my BVN. It was a hopeless situation. I only saw entertainment in fashion but no motivation to think I could make designs again. I was just hoping for a day that God would take my life or I took it myself. Like I said I feel favoured and loved by God because I hung in there. Not everyone has the grace to hang in there. I don’t know what made me hang in there. What is here/coming is better than what is gone/lost. So in response to your question, I never took a break because I needed to rebuild.

In your opinion, what steps can the fashion industry take to promote mental health awareness, advocacy, and support for those struggling with mental health issues?
One of the keys to success for creatives is collaboration. I noticed that we’re too competitive in the fashion industry. A lot of creatives misplace their priorities as a result. For example, you will see people do free jobs for a celebrity because they have a million or more followers. But what is the guarantee that that celebrity has your target audience? What’s the assurance that they will give you an “Ugo Monye and Ebuka “ effect? But then you can do good projects through collaborations which possibly has more potential to get you your targeted audience. So, God has blessed me with people around me. I will say be kinder to people and then I will say collaborate.

Since your return into the industry, you have released your book and begun high-profile styling again, how supportive and welcoming have your former collaborators and colleagues been?
I released a book before the mental breakdown and I am starting another in May but taking my time so I don’t miss any details. If you thought APRIL THE 29th was a good book then this is much better. I feel that anyone that can afford me, or work with me is high profiled. I feel everyone is equal and give them respect. You just have to work with the stylist or fashion entrepreneur that you can afford. In addition, money is not everything. Sometimes you can afford some people yet you’re not getting the class that you deserve.
So as you see on my Instagram page, I am fully back at work. So come for styling and I could clean you up and make your money work. My colleagues from the A-lace designers to the B-lace designers have been very supportive. The love has been very overwhelming. It is a beautiful time to be alive and this is coming from someone who once wished they will not see the next day. Now I look forward to the mornings.

Your work involves a whole village but requires mindfulness and self-reflection as a stylist. How do you collaborate with designers and fashion brands to create a cohesive look for your clients?
I am not going to let the whole cat out of the bag. If you want to know more about this, sign up for the waitlist for the school of style. It is a project coming up after my foundation. But I will say the moodboard is key. I don’t work without the moodboard. Some people don’t use the moodboard and are collecting a lot of money. So that’s what makes me stand apart.

What do you think sets your work apart from other stylists in the industry?
I don’t want to sound cliché but in all honesty, God is my foundation and the rock of my success as a fashion entrepreneur. I am gifted with foresight. So I give God all the glory to be able to see beyond what the ordinary eye can see. I didn’t learn to style formally anywhere. I had been designing since I was four. What sets me apart from other fashion entrepreneurs is that I stay comfortable in my lane. I don’t really envy what other designers are doing. When I see beautiful designs, I compliment them wholeheartedly. I acknowledge that there are talented designers out there who are doing even better than I am and that sets me aside.

How do you prioritize self-care in your busy schedule, and what strategies have you found to be most effective for maintaining your mental well-being?
If I have to put it on a scale of how I prioritise self-care right now, I will break the scale. If it is a scale of 1- 10, I will be at 45/10. When I take a job, I am accountable and I will have to do it. So, I no longer take impromptu jobs. Even if they have the money and it is impromptu I might not be available to go for the shoot. If I have to take it, it means I am smilling to the bank and then the hospital. So, the money you are struggling with goes back to the hospital. So that’s how much I prioritize self-care and health care. Now I have a certain number of shoots I can do in a week. I don’t joke with my break time. I have about 2 days in a week where I don’t work at all and I just spend time with family. I registered for the gym. I take long walks and drink a lot of water. It works like magic because I am more detoxified. I take vacations even if it is just for 4 days. There are serene places out of your localities especially if you are staying in the major cities like Lagos. So everyone needs to prioritize their mental health if they do not want to break down.

What’s something that brings JaneMichael Ekanem joy these days?
What is bringing me joy? Many things bring me joy including the thoughts of where I am coming from and where I am now, getting jobs brings me joy, conversations with my family bring me joy, and most importantly, conversations with my partner.

What’s a day in your life like now?
A typical day in my life is difficult to explain. In fact, you might be upset with me if you had the big picture. My days have been busy recently, but I consider it as a price to pay for a reward that comes soon maybe in a few minutes, maybe even now. So a day in my life is really busy now but it is less intense than far back. Then I was working like an elephant and eating like an ant.

What’s one misconception about mental health you hear often that you’d like to dispel?
The misconception about mental health that I hear and like to dispel is people assuming that poor mental health is only attributed to spiritual causes and drug abuse. It is true that drugs trigger mental illness but there are some cases where people or trauma trigger it. For some people even the stages of pregnancy triggers mental illness. So it takes a lot and I don’t think anyone should just associate mental illness with spiritual causes.

You authored a book; April the 29th. It is about your life struggles and successes, do you plan on writing another book on your mental health experience?
If I nor write about am wetin I gain? It would be unfair not to write about my experience because it would help a lot of people. If I were still struggling it would be odd writing about it but the fact that I am no longer weighed down by the situation would help a lot of people. Perhaps telling the details of my everyday lifestyle will give hope to help people realize that there is hope, Jesus is alive and God is love.

What plans or hopes do you have for yourself and your brand going forward?
I want to build my business in such a way that I could also earn money even when I am asleep and that is something we are putting together. Aside from the foundation and the school of style, we are having meetings with a couple of brands and people. For now, we are kicking up with MindfulMe Foundation and School of Style Africa

What would you say to anyone going through depression or any other mental health issue?
Your feelings are valid you are not alone, you are being heard and seen. You are loved. Be patient with yourself. Sometimes we do not focus on the beauty of life. We focus on the half-empty cup rather than the half full. You have shelter, clothes, food and you have good health. These are things to be grateful for. You want a private jet, a fleet of cars and all that. That is okay I also want a private jet too. But in the meantime, be easy on yourself. I am not where I want to be yet but every single thing will come together. There is never any end to the wants, needs and demands of life. You get a Lexus today, you want a Jeep Wrangler. You get a Jeep Wrangler, then you want the most recent release of the Lexus. So just give yourself a break, be content and easy on yourself. I can’t say it enough but you are okay, you are loved and you must learn to love and forgive yourself.

What do you want your legacy to be?
I want to be remembered for being a good person. I just hope that I am good because sometimes you never know. I hope that I am good enough to the people I meet to leave a positive impact that I was a good person.

Interview conducted by: Titilayo Oladapo-Ariyo
Photography: Emmanuel Oyeleke
Hair: luxury.myhairltd
Hair Stylist: Bernard Smiless
Makeup: TMT By Layinka
Skin: Theresa
Nails: Pastelsstudio.ng
Shirt: Mimmikasu
Skirt: Janemichael Collection
Earrings: Fabjewels Official

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