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Bukky Hassan: Tackling mental health issues by increasing awareness


Bukky Hassan

Bukky Hassan

No doubt, the lingering menace of terrorist attacks in Nigeria has been a clog in the wheel of the country’s development in recent years coupled with the incessant acts of corruption in public offices in the country. Although successive governments have made efforts to address these menace, the impending effect of such social vices on a nation is a source of worry for United Kingdom trained mental health practitioner, Mrs. Olubukola Hassan – Founder and president of Nightingale Mental Health Foundation. In this interview with NnamdiNwokolo, she speaks on how insecurity, terrorism and the prevalence of Internally Displaced Persons could hamper peace and development of the nation.

Is there any relationship between mental disorder and the acts of terrorism experienced in Nigeria? It is no gainsaying that the most populous black nation of the world – Nigeria, is battling her own fair share of social vices that have plunged the nation into a myriad of human and economic losses for over 5 years. Moreover, the command, control, recruitment, training, active operations and the target audience of terrorist groups, like the Boko Haram and Militants can all be located in different countries, hence, the inability of Nigerian government to effectively use counter-terrorism measures to nip the menace in the bud before it metamorphosed into dreaded insurgency. Many have said the insurgency is just religious intolerance among the citizenry but the political spin of our politicians is seriously unsettling this country. Injustice, corruption and must win syndrome of our politicians have heated up the polity to the extent that some regions of the country couldn’t bear the effect anymore, hence the uprising. Look at what is happening in the North East. There is lots of Internally Displaced People (IDP), faced with psychological issues like grief, loss, fear, and trauma and so on.

Apart from displacement from homes, what mental effect could terrorism have on victims? Of course it poses several mental health issues. If not addressed, the children among the IDPs may pose great threat to the country in the future. The problem here is that, if the government does not do anything on the reorientation of the IDPs, especially children, they may likely come up with post traumatic stress disorder. This is because a lot of them have watched their parents, sisters, brothers and neighbours maimed in cold blood. The sustained stressor such as poor housing, poor feeding, sexual abuse, violence and livelihood disruption may also contribute significantly to their mental health. It is noteworthy to say that considerable amount of them will meet criteria for major depressive disorder if their situation is handled with levity. Also, the increase in frustration could lead to depression and when that sets in, you expect rate of suicide to increase drastically. Hence, the need for government to be proactive about providing basic and social amenities for the citizenry before frustration turns them into menace to the society.

What can Nigerian government do differently to address this?
According to a report in 2014, Nigeria has 3.3million Internally Displaced Persons and on a global scale, Nigeria is only ranked behind Syria and Columbia. As at April 2015, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), reported that there are about 1.5million IDPs in Nigeria. That is a whole lot of possible threat to the country. And you could see part of the consequences of such imbroglio from 2013 till date on how Boko Haram kept increasing in physical presence. It is believed that some of these hapless displaced persons would later find solace in committing atrocities for survival.

We can only hope that government will invite mental health professionals to help proffer solutions to the psychological imbalance that some of these IDPs may be going through after their ugly experiences so that they won’t become menace in the future. What I mean is that, it is not only about building house for them or return them to their homes, the orphans among them who witnessed the way lives were forced out of their families, may be carrying excruciating mental pain to avenge such cruelty.

There are lots of psychiatrist in the country and many NGO’s that could re-orientate these IDPs. Even though some of these NGO’s are making efforts to render services at the IDP camps, threat to their lives is holding them aback. Reports have it that the IDP camps are not safe enough for these professionals to work. They only beef up the security when politicians want to visit. To be honest, we are not doing enough to help people manage mental health. Nigeria government must commit more money to tackling mental health issues in terms of increasing awareness on the problem as well as cutting down the cost of treatment of these conditions. With treatment, the chances of recovering from a mental health condition are far higher and better than other conditions like cancer. The passage of the National Mental Health bill is also pivotal to better treatment for them. You cannot overemphasize the relevance of mental health workers in this regard.

What would you term as mental disorder?
Common mental disorders include depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. As professionals, we try not to classify other things as mental illness or problem because of labeling. By the time someone is pronounced as having a mental health issue, that label is there and it remains. So, issues like anxiety are looked at more as psychological issues rather than mental health issue. Realistically, anybody can develop anxiety, lasting one to two days, but when it persists for at least a minimum of two weeks, that is when the psychiatrist may come up with a diagnosis depending on the presentation.

Apart from government, what is the duty of family in helping people with mental health issues to live well and positively with their condition? Family support is of great importance and that is what Nightingale Foundation does. Nightingale foundation provides leaflets that give information about common mental health disorders in a simple way to be understood by a lay man. Imagine sitting with a doctor and to be told your son is suffering from depression, schizophrenia and so on, it has no meaning. What they understand is that the person has an illness and they look at it as something that is not treatable. But when mental health professionals explain to them and guide them on what to do, it makes a huge difference in the chances of the person recovering from that mental illness.

You are so passionate about this cause. What is the motivating factor?
I was born and trained within a highly passionate, caring and loving family. The main event that compelled my heart to consider mental health care profession was when a bosom friend of mine had a mental break down on her wedding day in Asaba, Delta State. Fortunately, she was treated and she recovered and today she is happily married with children. Few years after the event, I found myself in the United Kingdom and later trained as a Mental Health Nurse at De Montfort University, Leicester. After my studies, I worked for a while before I returned home to establish the Nightingale Mental Health Foundation in Nigeria. I am currently appointed as the Head of Business and Nursing Services of Synapse Resource, a center for psychological medicine in Lagos.

Advice to the public:
We should all look after our mental health and stop stigmatizing against people living with mental illness. My advice to the government regarding the IDP is not to play politics with this situation but should engage the services of mental health professionals who will assess their mental state and provide necessary solutions that could come in form of therapies, psycho education and so on.

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