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VICTOR UGO: The Counsellor’s Counsellor

Our first encounter with Victor Ugo was sometime in 2018 and it was, unarguably an enlightening one. Since this was the period where the country was seeing an increasing number of suicides being reported and it made the encounter feel long overdue.

A graduate of medicine from Igbinedion University, Okada, Nigeria, Ugo has succeeded in making his Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative (MANI) a household name. However, it took a lot of campaigns, co-occurring with an increasing number of reported suicides, for them to be taken seriously.

It is no news that many in this part of the world don’t know the importance of a healthy mental state. The World Health Organisation states that there are 17.5 suicide deaths per 100, 000 deaths in Nigeria as at 2016 while World Bank puts it at 9.5 suicide deaths per 100, 000 deaths for the same period.

Despite these statistics, mental health enjoys backseat in Nigeria. A 2015 publication by WHO showed that only 1% of the total budget for health is expended on mental health. A large part of this spending is on core costs and overhead (staff salaries in federal Neuropsychiatric hospitals). What’s more? A survey said only 15% of Nigerians with severe cases of mental illness can access mental health care services. For those who are lucky or brave enough to access such services, the stigma society slaps on them is something to worry about.

In recent times, organisations such as MANI have been thriving where the government failed. For Ugo, personal battles with depression opened his eyes to the state of mental health in Nigeria. 

Victor Ugo

Black man, no depression? 

Ugo recounts his childhood as being privileged regardless of his persistent battle with his mental health issues and having attempted suicide twice between the ages of 12 to 23.

Unfortunately, the typical African society feels it is unheard of or unusual for an African child to be “depressed”. It has also made many parents unaware of what their children are probably going through until the inevitable happens and it is being revealed in a suicide note.

For Ugo, his suicide attempt during his teenage years did not end in tears and grief for his loved ones; even though he points out his parents’ unintentional inability to spot his battle with depression. “It was often confused with my interest in books because I wasn’t an interactive person which made it hard to tell on first glance; I’ll choose reading overeating. I also had trouble sleeping.”

However, surviving the first attempt at suicide left a big mark on his life.: I remember cutting myself with a hot knife when I was a teenager. I honestly didn’t know what was wrong but I felt that was the only way out of all my problems at the time. When I first attempted suicide, it was more of my friends that noticed at least one of my friend’s that was close enough. Overdosing on pills was my first option, I slept for a long time and woke up feeling unaccomplished by the outcome of events, thinking the pills I took was not enough. 

Even after his first diagnosis of depression at the age of 23 and surviving suicide, Ugo is now well aware of the need to constantly pay attention to his mental health, which includes letting people in on the goings-on of his mind.

However, one would expect the “Nigerian” factor to kick in whereby the child is taken for a series of prayers at different churches but since Ugo comes from a clergy-home, at the time it wasn’t something his parents thought was big enough reason for him to be taken to the “mountain”. But so many other times and for other reasons, Ugo recalls been taken by his mom for prayers. “My mom is a very strong Christian. She does pray for me, every time, to be prosperous and most importantly to stay alive.”

MANI: The Beginning and journey So far

The Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative (MANI), a non-governmental, nonprofit organisation, kicked off on June 2016 with the aim of working to improve the dire state of mental health advocacy and care in Nigeria and Africa.

Ugo’s motivation to begin MANI came in during the time when he was to begin his residency. Another push to this motivation was realizing the privilege he had in terms of having people around him showing support, which a lot of people in the same situation lacked. He felt the need to provide a system that offers the type of support that people coping with mental health issues needed.

A system that isn’t just restricted to the general public or potential patients, as even counsellors are looked after by welfare officers in order to make sure they function optimally.

“One of our values is not just to preserve life but motivate people to live life to the fullest, achieve their full potential and that cannot be accomplished without stable mental health”, Ugo says.

‘Our campaigns so far have proved to be successful, and we have grown beyond what we thought possible’,” Ugo continues.

One would think an outreach like MANI would have the support of every related government parastatal in the country but Ugo reveals sustaining MANI has been done through personal funding and resources.“I had substantial savings from my time in medical school and also several businesses I ran, which was also a source of revenue. My family also showed great support which was also a means of sustaining MANI. It’s been a struggle and loads of sacrifices but it’s been worth it”, Ugo reveals.

On MANI getting support from the Ministry of Health, Ugo says: We have done everything independent of the ministry of health, no support in terms of finances and resources. However, we are now finding ways to partner with them, the conversation is ongoing. Maybe when the government has more support for mental health, we can probably get as much support for MANI as possible”.

However, Ugo’s highly ambitious nature didn’t envisage the swift growth and acceptance of MANI, “I always dream big, but I expected this [MANI] to take more time for us to get to where we are. But it looks like it took a shorter time than we thought. And I’m very excited to see how all that pans out in a few years from now”.

Reminiscing and Projecting

Even though MANI is Ugo’s priority, he still reveals the plan to set up and publish a magazine is still in the works as well as other outreaches that focus on health in general.

He says the number of people helped so far through MANI’s counselling services has recorded almost 15,000 since March 2017 and it keeps rising.“What we have observed is that the more we help people, the more referrals we receive, which is good for the expansion of MANI as a whole.”

Despite coming this far, Ugo says if he could give his younger self a piece of advice it definitely will be to be nicer to people and socialize more “maybe it won’t be hard doing so now”. 

For someone who loved living in isolation and reading a lot of books, Ugo feels his seemingly complicated life can easily be described with one song “Numb/Encore” by Linkin Park.

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