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Millsaps Senior Erika Coleman Explores Sierra Leone and Its Healthcare System

by Zaria Bonds (Class of 2019) on October 11, 2016

Millsaps College senior Erika Coleman is on a quest to learn more about how women in Sierra Leone in West Africa are treated for mental illness.

Coleman, a senior from Ocean Springs, recently spent time conducting ethnographic field research in Sierra Leone as part of her Millsaps honors project. Sierra Leone, which has a high percentage of women with mental illness, recently established a mental health policy to help reduce the occurrence of mental illnesses and determine an effective treatment path.

“Being able to examine and experience Sierra Leone’s healthcare system from the inside has enabled me to identify challenges to the healthcare system in this particular cultural context, but also some challenges that would be faced by any system in a similar situation,” Coleman said. “Not only that, but it has also allowed me to see what a healthcare system is capable of, even in the absence of some resources that we, in the U.S., deem necessary.”

Coleman said one of her goals was to share knowledge with local institutions in Sierra Leone, so that they could use the information to address problems.

While in Sierra Leone for two months, Coleman said she made many connections to the people there.

“I felt a wonderfully unexpected sense of belonging,” she said. “Every Sierra Leonean I’ve met has been kind, gracious, and welcoming.”

A pre-med student who is majoring in anthropology and minoring in chemistry and art history, Coleman chose Sierra Leone as her research destination because she was drawn to the country after first learning about it when she was a freshman, at the beginning of the most recent Ebola outbreak.

“I asked myself questions like, ‘Who is responsible for the rollout of mental healthcare here? Is it working? What problems do certain groups face? How subjective are trauma experiences in this environment?’”

Coleman said she has had a strong support system through the mentorships of Dr. George Bey, professor of sociology and anthropology and the Chisholm Foundation Chair of Arts and Sciences, and also former Millsaps professor Dr. Julian Murchison. Chris Donald, former chaplain at Millsaps, encouraged Coleman to consider visiting Sierra Leone during a conversation when she was a freshman.

“I went home and read some articles about it and immediately became interested in the mental health situation; the events that transpired during the Sierra Leonean civil war left many people completely destitute and lacking any significant social ties.” Coleman praises Bey and Murchinson for their endless support and for also giving her the opportunity to tackle such a challenging topic.

“I am looking forward to the opportunities this will create not only to educate my community about the challenges Sierra Leone is facing right nows but also to highlight the amazing strength that each woman I interviewed possesses in spite of those challenges,” she said.

After graduating from Millsaps in the spring of 2017, Coleman plans to take a gap year to live and work in the healthcare field in Los Angeles. She then plans to be commissioned into the Air Force and attend medical school through one of its programs.

Coleman is a member of Sigma Lambda, Alpha Epsilon Delta pre-health honorary, and the Sociology/Anthropology Club. During her senior year, Coleman will continue working as an Information Technology lab assistant, a student worker in the Office of Continuing Education, and a resident assistant.