Jihad Bnimoussa’s “Inspiration Corporation” Brings Mental Health Support to Morocco’s Young People
Rabat – Jihad Bnimoussa, CEO of InspireCorp, a non-profit organization which aims to build psychological resilience and social and emotional skills amongst Morocco’s young people, welcomed me into her office, and apologized if she seemed tired. Between recent travels – like participating in a UN ECOSOC Youth Forum in NYC and a Stanford Amends Fellowship in Tunis – along with keeping up with the daily grind of a new company, she was feeling a bit worn down.
If she hadn’t mentioned her exhaustion, I wouldn’t have noticed as she didn’t show it in the slightest. She spoke enthusiastically about her work at InspireCorp and the current mental health services in the MENA region. At just 25 years old, she conducted herself in a way that made her seem much older, and while someone with as much knowledge as she has could perhaps be condescending, Bnimoussa was the opposite.
She was easy to talk to and after we had introduced ourselves and I had settled into the bright yellow couch in her office, she explained her long-standing draw to supporting young people as well as the ins and outs of the region’s current mental health resources. Throughout the conversation, Bnimoussa’s passion for her work and desire to touch as many young people as she can was woven into everything she said.
Pursuing a Deep-Rooted Passion for Youth Development
Bnimoussa’s parents raised her and her younger brother and sister with the idea of giving back, telling them: ‘your job is something that makes a difference in the world. If it doesn’t, it’s a hobby.’
“Your starting point [for giving back] are the people that are closest to you and that comes from your culture or your country of origin,” they told her. “So, Morocco, for us, was always the base of giving back.”
Bnimoussa spent her childhood in the US, but was born to Moroccan parents who were set on their kids learning Arabic and maintaining a connection to their Moroccan roots. Her family moved to Saudi Arabia towards the end of her elementary school years, but soon after moved again to the more westernized and less conservative UAE.
In the UAE, Bnimoussa found herself immersed in Arab culture and a Muslim community while still surrounded by a ‘melting pot of cultures.’ However, she said it was the annual summers in Morocco, spent working or volunteering in Casablanca, where she connected to her country of origin and really found her passion.
She explained that she’s always followed her curiosity when deciding which path to follow and remembered, even as a young girl, being determined to choose to volunteer in places that could possibly provide an answer to her questions.
Bnimoussa described her fascination with adults’ expectations of youth, specifically during the transitional period of adolescence. This led her to volunteer in the youth development sector – in summer camps, leadership workshops, and youth shelters.
“That got me to really start understanding the huge gaps in service here in Morocco and start understanding the fragmentation of youth development and it’s lack of depth,” she said.
While pursuing a degree in psychology in Istanbul, she continued working in youth development. After graduating she moved to yet another country and worked towards a Masters in Child and Youth Care Studies in Scotland.
Bnimoussa, who struggled with her own mental health as a teenager, said she felt like everyone around her had something they were struggling with, too. But even though mental health issues seemed common, nobody was talking about it.
More, she realized the same issues – and the same lack of conversation- plagued youth everywhere she went – from the US to Morocco.
“There was just this big disconnect between what young people were experiencing and the conversations around them and how adults treated them,” she said.
In 2017, still enrolled in her masters program, Bnimoussa moved to Morocco – where she knew she wanted to be based in the future – to work on her dissertation. She created a focus group of Moroccan teen girls as part of her field research, hoping to understand their experiences with mental health and what help was available to them.
One Saturday afternoon they gathered on the beach – where Bnimoussa had set up blankets and brunch – and exchanged stories about their own struggles. The girls loved it. They wanted it to be a regular thing, not just a focus group.
Bnimoussa created a Facebook group and within three months 300 girls had joined.
Soon after, Bnimoussa’s friend, Fatima-Zahra Ma-el-ainin, joined Bnimoussa to help keep up with the community’s growing demand. They worked together to analyze which mental health issues the girls were struggling with and which social and emotional skills they needed the most help developing.
“A lot of the foundational social and emotional skills were just not there. And it didn’t matter which socio-economic class they were from – it was just a universal need,” Bnimoussa said.
By the end of 2017, Bnimoussa and Ma-el-ainin had piloted workshops in the girls’ schools for FairyLights, a mental health support group for girls. They’d also began developing another program, called Resilience Education Boot Camp, to provide social and emotional skills training to any interested students.
It was around this time that Bnimoussa realized this could be the start of something big.
While she had always wanted to start an organization like this – she even came up with its name, ‘Inspiration Corporation,’ in highschool – she didn’t know if she was ready, having pictured herself graduating and getting experience working at a tech start-up before launching her own company.
“But then I realized it doesn’t work that way,” she said. “I’ve been seeing the need for years – every summer when I came here and also across the region.”
Ultimately, InspireCorp, which Bnimoussa and Ma-el-ainin launched in early 2018, came about because the community asked for it – not because they were marketing programming to potential students.
Now, a little over one year later, InspireCorp’s three branches – FairyLights, resiliency education and legal advocacy work – functions with the hard work of no more than 3 full-time employees at any given time.
Fairlylights was their first program which grew out of Bnimoussa’s focus groups and uses activities to build a safe space to open up a conversation about mental health among young women.
“It’s largely a conversation between them. It’s not necessarily led by a therapist and it’s not meant to be therapy, but it creates a space for a lot of girls to really discuss these things for the first time,” Bnimoussa explained.
FairyLights has been developed to be by-girls-for-girls so that female students interested in the program can bring it in their own schools and communities. It’s now spreading outside Morocco, to the US, Tunisia, and France.
InspireCorp is different from other services because it looks at designing experiences that are themselves therapeutic or allow the individual to learn something through the activity in an organic way.
Bnimoussa says it is key to connect with young people where they’re at versus coming to them with an ‘expert’s’ perspective and, even though she is only 25, she said she works hard to stay connected to her past experiences and her own process of self-development.
“Even though you transform and grow you stay connected to those experiences so that when you talk to a person who’s struggling with something that you struggled with in the past, you immediately know what they’re talking about,” she shared.
Building upon its small group resilience ‘boot camps,’ InspireCorp produced an emotional intelligence guide and is spreading it through the public school system. So far they’ve trained teachers from 200 schools across Morocco – through the Mohammedan League of Oulemas – who then trained other teachers within their respective schools and began integrating emotional education into some of their lessons.
This is an ongoing project and is on track to impact 7illion young people in Morocco over the next three years.
In addition to their programming, InspireCorp includes a legal team that advocates for policies that would integrate emotional education as part of the right to quality education on both a domestic and international level.
“Our mission is to make emotional education a human right,” she said.
Creating a New Model to Counter a Lack of Resources
While Bnimoussa is proud of what they’ve accomplished so far – and a bit shocked that most of it has happened throughout the past year – she says a new model is necessary to be able to reach every young person in need of support.
In order to counter the limited number of psychologists, psychiatrists, and general resources available to young people struggling with mental health, InspireCorp is currently creating a mobile application based on data from their own work and outside research.
“[The app] looks at the core value of therapy and reengineers that model in order to make it more equitably accessible,” she explained.
Bnimoussa, who admitted she “geeks out” over the tiny details of making everything cute and cozy, was able to describe the background functioning of the mobile application as easily as she described the details of the first FairyLights day on the beach.
She explained the psychological processes behind the app’s function in a way that was easy for a non-expert to follow, yet without losing their significance in the methodology.
Therapy itself offers two main values, according to Bnimoussa. It provides an empathetic conversation that normalizes the problem and makes the individual feel better while granting specific social and emotional skills that help the individual solve their current problem and similar problems in the future.
Traditionally this is done through therapy, but, because of limited resources and cost, therapy as a model cannot realistically be used for a large population.
“You need to be able to provide both [values of therapy] in a different way. In this way [using an app], you can cover millions of young people at the same time,” she added.
Ideally the app will be able to cater to students’ individual needs and will be implemented through the education system so every student in partner schools will have access to it.
Those with severe issues will be able to contact a trained counselor 24/7 by text who can provide support or connect them with other resources.
The app will also contain modules that aim to teach a specific social or emotional skills through daily tasks or challenges that could be recommended to students by one of the trained counselors or students can self-select for their own self-development.
Bnimoussa said she is confident in students’ use of an app like this because, like their in-person programming, its creation is a response to community need and desire. She said the global conversation surrounding mental health has grown and when they visit schools they’ll stay for hours talking with students and answering questions.
While waiting for all the funding for the tech build-out to come through, InspireCorp is testing out potential modules with young people to see which social and emotional skills they need most.
“Everything we do we try to make it very inclusive of the opinions of young people,” she said. “Their opinions have literally guided everything that we’ve done because they provide insight as to what is actually relevant to them.”
Bnimoussa says they hope to release the app, in both English and Arabic, in 2020.
Mental Health Resources in the MENA Region
Bnimoussa hopes that InspireCorp’s work, especially the app, will help counter the current lack of mental health resources in Morocco and the MENA region and Africa as a whole.
Throughout the MENA region and Africa, infrastructure to support people struggling with mental health, usually provided by the government through healthcare systems in places like the US and Europe, is missing.
The government provides a limited number of psychiatric hospitals – often only one or two – in big cities with even less in rural areas. These hospitals have a limited number of beds, typically offer very specific services, and often prioritize older members of the population.
Even if individuals can afford therapy, there is only about one psychologist or psychiatrist for every 200,000 people across the region, making it difficult to get an appointment.
“[These services] are usually just completely overwhelmed by the amount of people that they need to serve because there aren’t any other forms of mental health services,” she explained. “Everything ends up being poured on top of them.”
Morocco has one crisis hotline. While they do have a mobile application, the hot-line is only open during normal business hours and has a limited number of counselors.
Bnimoussa explained that, unlike other parts of the world where crisis hotlines can connect callers to outside support, Morocco’s hotline is unable to reach out to other services, like dispatching an ambulance if there is a risk of suicide.
“That’s the nature of the region,” she said. “Even if they wanted to refer out, they don’t have anyone to refer to.”
Ideally, InspireCorp’s app will also be able to serve as an improved hotline for students – it’s trained counselors will have the resources to provide a referral to a psychologist or dispatch an ambulance.
While some NGOs support youth in other ways, they often don’t have the resources or trained staff to help those facing mental health issues. Additionally, due to lack of funding and trained individuals, it’s uncommon for schools to have trained counselors, according to Bnimoussa.
The Pros and Cons of Being Based in Morocco
She explained that by being in Morocco, versus somewhere like the US, she has been able to see the nuances in issues surrounding youth mental health firsthand.
“I knew I wanted to be in Morocco and I knew I needed to do this work here because it does give us an insider perspective,” she said. “We would not have thought about the issue in this very particular way if we weren’t here.”
At the same time, she admitted that being in Morocco has also made her work harder, especially when considering mental health as a global issue. InspireCorp’s approach to mental health care is progressive and, in this sense, it’s a downside to be in Morocco.
“When you’re outside of an innovation hub there’s a certain level of acceleration and access to opportunity that you are away from,” she said.
If all goes as planned, InspireCorp will begin spreading the app globally in two years, which would likely require her to relocate to one of these hubs. But for now, she’s learned to counter Morocco’s isolation through reaching out to bigger organizations and spreading the word through any and all connections she has.
And, for a 25-year-old who’s startup hasn’t even celebrated its two-year anniversary, she has a lot of connections. Bnimoussa said she’s been sharing her work with World Merit, the UN, WE.org and Crisis Text Line, who told her InspireCorp’s app could potentially help them with their own issues of reaching those in need of support in the region.
Bnimoussa emphasized the importance of improving the situation in Morocco, the MENA region, and Africa overall, where there is both a greater lack of resources and a greater number of young people than other places in the world.
Nearly 90% of the world’s youth live in developing countries, according to previous studies by the UN.
“If we’re looking at our future as humanity and our world then the young people who are going to be leading it are in developing countries and they are not having access to the support and resources they need,” she said.
However, InspireCorp’s work has the potential to improve the lives of young people around the globe.
“[The app] is something that could have a global impact,” she said. “It’s something that could provide a scalable, preventative model that would help solve some of the mental health crisis that we face.”
A Future That Holds Emotional Education for All
Bnimoussa said she frequently reminds her team that they’re working to build a hundred-year company – their long term goal to make emotional education a human right and ensure all young people have access to these skills isn’t going to happen overnight.
Social and emotional skills are “just words” to most people, but someone who has gone through therapy would understand their value, she said.
“There’s a reason they recommend therapy to anybody they talk to,” she said. “It’s because the skills you learn through it, the way that you learn to think and the way that you learn to take control of your own mind is completely transformative.”
It seems unfair that only those who have access to and can afford a therapist get to learn how to operate their minds. Especially since often times it’s marginalized and less privileged populations that already have higher risk factors of mental health who need these skills but can’t access them, Bnimoussa added.
“[Emotional Education] is a foundational thing that everyone should have so we could at least have a chance to build the kind of humanity that we dream of,” she said.
Every single person struggles with mental health throughout their life, according to recent comprehensive research from the Dunedin Study in New Zealand.
Their study tracked people throughout their lives and found that it’s not a percentage of the population that experiences mental health issues, as most studies conclude, but every person. However, since individual’s struggles occur at different points in their lives and other studies focus only on one period of someone’s life, they haven’t been able to reach this consensus.
Bnimoussa said growing up she looked at huge corporations that have so much influence and add so much value – in a product-centered way – to people’s lives and wondered:
“Why can’t it be an inspiration corporation? Like a corporation that does have a lot of different projects but they’re all working to serve humanity.”