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Young people’s mental health is a ticking time-bomb

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For Adamu Bello*, it was arduous understanding the waves of emotions hitting him and articulating how he felt to his parents and family was just an uphill task.

“I have never heard anything about ‘mental health’ at home or school,” said the 16-year-old who was diagnosed with Mixed Anxiety-Depressive Disorder (MADD) about a year ago.         

Bello is just one of the thousands of Nigerian youths caught in the web of moribund mental health care in Nigeria.

In Nigeria today, attitude towards mental illness is gravely coloured with prejudice and misconceptions. It is believed that an estimated 20% – 30% of the population suffer from mental illnesses, regrettably, the level of awareness on mental health issues amongst the Nigerian public is considerably dismal.

“When I was told that I was on the verge of being clinically depressed by a counsellor with one of the mental health advocacy group, I sought help,” Lanre Ibiyemi*.

“My mother-in-law was told that my problem was spiritual.”

This type of belief is one of the major problems facing mental health care in Africa’s most populous country. Its large army of youths employed or not is even more at risk.

“Adolescence and the early years of adulthood are a time of life when many changes occur, for example changing schools, leaving home, and starting university or a new job,” the World Health Organisation said in commemoration of this year’s World Mental Health Day, which was focused on mental health issues confronting youth and young adults in our ever-changing world today.

“For many, these are exciting times. However, they can also be times of stress and apprehension.”

Between 2013 and 2017,  22, 793 patients who were either children or adolescents were treated for different mental health issues at the Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital in Lagos. Majority of these patients were children.

Globally, it is estimated that 10-20% of adolescents experience mental health conditions. Half of all mental health conditions start by 14 years of age, but most cases are undetected and untreated. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people who fall within the (15 – 29) age bracket. Depression in adolescents is a major risk factor for suicide, the second-to-third leading cause of death in this demographic.

Girls are two times more likely than boys to be diagnosed with depression in adolescence and throughout the course of their life. But boys have issues with anger and engage in risky behaviours. Research also further proves that gender-based differences contribute significantly to the prevalence of mental health issues among young persons.

Lower self-esteem and anxiety over their body-image experienced by adolescent girls when compared to boys in the same age group is known to result in a higher prevalence of depression and of eating disorders in adolescent girls when compared to adolescent boys. In adults, there is a high incidence of depression and anxiety among women, while antisocial behaviours and substance use disorders are higher in men.

“Adolescence can be a turbulent time in a person’s life;  it is a phase when a child is transitioning into an adult,”  Dr Dami Ajayi, Senior Registrar, Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital, Yaba.

“Many children go through some stressful events during this phase due to certain factors such as bad parenting, peer pressure, excess exposure to social media and the internet amongst others.”

The cause of mental health illnesses in adolescents is varied but most cases can be traced to psychological trauma resulting from either physical assault – if a child is cruelly lashed, sexually abused or verbally abused. Self-loathing, dysfunctional family backgrounds, cyberbullying could also predispose adolescents to episodes of disruptive behaviours, leading to depression and suicidal thoughts.

Although there is a rising research on the mental health literacy of adults, there is yet to be a parallel interest in the mental health literacy of young people in Nigeria. Some of the policies on mental health and development in Nigeria –  the Mental Health Policy formulated in 1991, National Adolescent Health Policy (NAHP), and National Youth Policy (NYP) – do not earnestly address the issues of mental health among adolescents and young persons.

And there is a lacuna on data/statistics concerning the prevalence, pattern of psychiatric disorders among young persons in Nigeria.

The result of this information gap is the continual disregard for mental health issues and the need for preventive services for young persons. It is important to understand the rate and distribution of these disorders among the population, to improve the health conditions of adolescents with psychiatric disorders.

*Name changed to protect identity


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