Mujidat Shotonwa

Considering Culture in Eating Disorder Recovery: An Interview with Mujidat Shotonwa, MHC-LP

After studying Psychology as an undergraduate at University of Pennsylvania, Mujidat Shotonwa embarked on a degree in Mental Health Counseling (MHC) at Brooklyn College. During her graduate training, she started working with children. She counseled kids in private practice and also took a Guidance Counselor position at Prep for Prep, a program for minority children in fifth and sixth grades that helps prepare them to attend independent schools in New York City.

While working there, Mujidat noticed more and more adolescents with mental health issues–and was particularly struck by how many were struggling with eating disorders. It was new terrain to her, for up to that point, Mujidat had neither personal nor professional exposure to eating disorders.

“I had to put the pieces together myself without knowing who to turn to, where to turn, or what’s the best way to work with them–especially because they were minority kids, so there was a multi-cultural competency piece.” Explaining to parents of various cultures how an eating disorder manifests was no simple task, but it was one which accelerated Mujidat’s professional development and endowed her with invaluable skills that she now draws upon daily.

Mujidat decided to delve deeper into the world of eating disorders. She reached out to her best friend, the Assistant Clinical Director of eating disorder treatment center Monte Nido in San Diego, who introduced to Mujidat to Greta, Founder of Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists (EDRS). Mujidat began working as a meal support coach with clients in New York City in August 2015.

Meal coaching proved to be deeply rewarding and educational, but also challenging. Even when clients are eager to overcome their eating disorders, and welcome a meal support coach into their recovery process, they still often feel uncertain about if they really, totally want to let their eating disorder go. And, in the moment of challenging an eating disorder behavior, they sometimes will resist the actions required to recover. Mujidat reflects: “What was difficult for me in the beginning was dealing with a client’s resistance in the moment, and their ambivalence. Especially in cases where it was so apparent to the professionals how much help the client needed, and they were still very ambivalent about it. That was difficult to wrap my head around.”

One symptom of an eating disorder is that the suffering individual is not able to see clearly. Mujidat realized quickly that clients often cannot see themselves as being as sick as others see them: “Just because I can see someone who may present as very sick doesn’t mean that’s how they are determining if they are sick. What I see is not necessarily what they see.”

Through supervision and many meal support experiences, Mujidat has come to appreciate the complex issues coursing under the surface for individuals with eating disorder. “It has opened up my empathy, to see (in moments of resistance) how difficult it is for someone dealing with the disorder.”

In December 2015, Mujidat’s role at EDRS expanded to that of Intake Coordinator. As such, she conducts phone conversations with new clients, which entails gathering all pertinent information for their care, and listening as they tell the story of how their eating disorder developed. When conducting intakes for teenage clients, Mujidat speaks to the parents as much as the clients. She finds it tremendously rewarding to witness the beginning steps of change happening within the family system. For Mujidat, helping to facilitate a client’s recovery from the position of Intake Coordinator generates “a really good feeling for me, because it feels like I am part of pieces that are coming together.”

Mujidat is of Nigerian descent, and her best friend is from Ghana. They often converse about the need and challenges of bringing mental health services to Africa. “The initial barrier is always the cultural piece. How do we get the people to understand that this is important? How do we tweak our services so that they can relate to it? Once we figure out a way to make that adjustment, we can then bring everything else in.” Similarly, Mujidat engages in customizing caregiving on a case-by-case basis with EDRS clients, who also are from a variety of different cultures and operate in different paradigms.

And while there are great strides to be taken abroad, there is also a lot of work to be done domestically. Stigma pervades, and does not affect all mental health issues equally: “Depression, anxiety, mood disorders, psychosis–while those issues are still stigmatized, they are at least being spoken about. Those conversations are starting to be had in (minority) communities. However, there are things that are coming up (like eating disorders) that we have not started talking about, either because they weren’t prevalent before, or we didn’t have what was necessary to manage it.”

Mujidat feels especially compelled to increase eating disorder awareness and accessibility to treatment in her community: “I feel like I owe it to my community to be doing this work. In black communities, in poor communities, in minority communities, in non-American communities–which are all my background–we are still trying to destigmatize mental health issues. We’re trying to make sure that people know it’s important and necessary. Seeing the eating disorder issues in my kids at Prep for Prep, I realized we need to start talking about it. We need to start talking about things that we’re not used to seeing.”

Mujidat is proud of the mission she has taken on: “I feel really good to have the knowledge (about eating disorders) as a black woman. Now, I have to figure out how to take this knowledge with me back to my communities.”

If you or someone you know might be struggling with an eating disorder, contact EDRS.  We are here to assist in your journey to recovery.