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Mental health deserves attention too

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If we judge by the statistics offered by the Federal Ministry of Health recently nearly 60 million Nigerians suffer from mental health challenges. In a country where there is profound ignorance about mental health this sounds frightening and almost unbelievable. To most Nigerians to be mentally ill means to be ‘mad’, that is, to be psychotic and displaying signs of abnormal and violent behaviour.

The truth is that mental illness is a term for a wide range of mental challenges, which people suffer from. Mental disorders range from the mild, to the moderate and severe forms. They include depression, postpartum depression (affects some women after childbirth), dementia and Alzheimer (affect the elderly) bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other psychotic disorders.

The attention which the statement credited to the Permanent Secretary Federal Ministry of Health Abdulaziz Abdullahi is perhaps a good entry point into placing mental ill-health on the front burner. The government chose the platform of the ongoing Action Committee and Stakeholders workshop in Abuja to highlight the scourge. Often it is a tabooed subject, a subject that is discussed with superstition and ignorance. Out of ignorance our folks attribute the onset of mental disorders to witchcraft, ancestral curse, spiritual attacks from the devil and the result of doing a forbidden act. Mental illness is like any other illness. The only difference is that it affects the mind. It is not caused by juju or witches. It is often caused by a combination of psychological, social and biological factors, which often need proper diagnosis.

There are persons who go through life with mental disorders. While some operate and function on the margins others simply break down owing to lack of institutional and family support. Some people react to trauma by going into depression. In a world where people are encouraged to be strong at all times, it becomes a sign of weakness to openly admit mental disorder. It carries automatic stigmatization. At the workplace such persons are virtually ostracized and discussed in hush tones. Their competence and skills are immediately questioned. Some even suffer stagnation and ultimate sack if the ailment continues. Rather than empathy or sympathy society offers fear, doubt, and rejection.

As this newspaper noted the other day here, one of the rising manifestations of mental ill-health in the country is the increased rate of suicides, which is committed in the open. In Lagos the Third Mainland Bridge has become notorious for providing an outlet for suicides. Too many people in the last one year have dived into the lagoon from that bridge. Poisonous substances, which are meant to exterminate rodents have also become easy tools for suicides.

The harsh economic times and poor welfare policies of the state also negatively affect citizens. Men and women who have lost their source of income have become so despondent that they take the suicide route to end things. Along the streets of major cities and towns in Nigeria are the so-called ‘madmen and women’ who have become a constant in the social construct of city life. This need not be.

A few weeks ago a family of five was rescued from the streets of Ogoja in Cross River State when a corps member, Promise Obireko, published photographs of the distressed family on social media. The public outcry that followed prompted the Federal Ministry of Health and the Cross River State government to intervene. The family is currently on the mend at the psychiatric hospital in Calabar. There are many more of such mentally-ill persons in such cities as Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, Warri, Benin and Kaduna.

The time has come to deal with the issue practically. Anybody can, could become a victim of mental disorder. Wealth and high status are no insulating factors at all. Mental disorders affect people from all strata of society. The high profile suicides, which have been recorded in America and the Western world generally prove this point. It is not a sign of weakness to be mentally ill. The victims of mental disorder need help and support; not derision and superstition. Managers of the so-called spiritual homes should be warned against deceiving the gullible people in the land. They often accept depressed or psychotic persons into their homes and subject them to extreme severe violent conditions in order ‘to beat the evil spirits out of them’.

There are not enough psychiatrists and psychiatrist nurses in the country. Professional counselors are nearly absent. Besides, it has not been part of our culture to seek help from counselors. Medical students are often not encouraged to go into this special field of medicine. We therefore suggest incentives for medical doctors who choose this line of medical practice. There should be mass campaign against stigmatisation and ignorance. The nation’s Policy on Mental Health should be revisited and updated to meet contemporary challenges. Help lines should be introduced across the country to provide succor to distressed persons. This is where non-governmental organisations are needed. Working with the governments at the federal, state and local levels there should be provisions for establishing different forms of help.

Finally, it is not enough to reel out statistics, which are based on mere projections. There should be definite steps towards establishing systems that will help to reduce mental disorders. Awareness and enlightenment programmes should commence immediately.

People should be counseled about seeking help if they begin to feel severely troubled in the mind. Families and friends should also be on the lookout for loved ones. Often the mentally-ill are never really aware of their condition. Medications for mental disorders should be available in psychiatric hospitals. A few months ago the British government appointed a Minister for Suicide Prevention. What else can show how seriously a government takes the mental health of its citizens?


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