About the middle of 2018 along with some compatriots we registered a non-governmental organization dedicated to counseling and referring persons suffering from depression and suicidal tendencies to experts. We also set out to create awareness on mental health issues in Nigeria, a subject on which there is a lot of superstition and ignorance. The immediate reason we formed the group was the increased rate of public suicides in the country. As for me it was one Pelumi, a young lady who had interned with a radio station and shortly after took her life. I looked at her picture on Instagram and Facebook. She looked happy and fulfilled. And wondered why an apparently happy lady should take her life. It was the catalyst. Something, I reasoned, had to be done about creating awareness on mental health.
Except we encounter mental disorder at close quarters, either in the family or in a close friend, we usually see it as a far-away thing, a thing for people who have broken some rule. The truth is that anybody could suffer a mental breakdown – good people, bad people, religious people and successful people. Some people go through trauma and never actually get out of it. The after-effects remain for a long time. We are also not equally resilient. Furthermore some people are more genetically disposed to having mental breakdowns than others. Often people are surprised when an apparently successful man or woman suddenly begins to ‘behave funny’, either in dressing or getting into fits of uncontrollable temper. The surprise is greater when the person ingests a poisonous substance or hangs to end life. On the surface the person may have looked normal, happy and contented. Deep inside there is intense worry or uncertainty or a feeling of inadequacy. Sometimes paranoia develops and this unfounded fear leads to terrible consequences.
It has been a long and uncertain journey, not knowing what to expect, not knowing who would call next and narrate a grim story, over which we may not get the resources to immediately help. This is because we set up a Whatsapp group of the inner persons of professionals (psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors and enthusiasts) and a public Facebook closed group with the name Help-A-Soul-Alliance (HASA). By December last year we had a membership of ten thousand persons spread across the world with the highest concentration in Nigeria, Lagos accounting for the highest within the country. We also embarked on giving talks on mental health to secondary schools students in Lagos State. The journey has been rewarding, sometimes frustrating when we are short of the resources to deal with urgent situations. The story of the family of five, roaming the streets of Ogoja as ‘mad persons’ which a corps member brought to the attention of the world still lingers. They have been cured but they need rehabilitation.
Central to confronting depression and suicide is the stigma which is associated with mental disorders. Nobody wants to see a psychiatrist because in their view seeing a psychiatrist is a sign of madness. We have developed all kinds of derogatory codes and expressions to refer to persons and institutions which deal with mental disorders. Added to this is the level of ignorance about the subject. Some pastors, imams and religious healers have preyed on the ignorance of some of our people to make money. We also know that in the advanced world the word ‘psychiatric’ is being gradually removed from facilities where the mentally-ill are treated.
The first task therefore is to create awareness on mental disorders. Our plan is to visit schools, churches, mosques, villages and towns, and other assemblies to draw attention to the scourge. We also plan to do documentaries in local languages that will be aired on radio for a considerable period of time. The focus is that mental disorders which come in different forms are not caused by witches or wizards nor are they consequences of ancestral curses or evil committed by the victim. It is difficult to convince the average Nigerian that ‘madness’ is not caused by evil spirits. So we must begin to deconstruct the mind of our brothers and sisters.
Since HASA now registered as Mind and Soul Helpers Initiative (MASHI) started we have handled crisis situations across the country. There have been two approaches – phone interviews followed by a personal visit and referral to specialists. Some callers do not want their spouse to know that they had been in touch with a psychiatrist. ‘I am so angry with my husband right now’, one caller said, ‘if I don’t get help I will kill him and kill myself’. The cause is often the presence of another woman in the life of the husband. Most have to do with loss of a job or loss of a source of income- collapse of business. A couple had to do with the high level of indebtedness.
In our short period of interventions we have also come to see that the social and financial costs of treating the mentally-ill are high. Schizophrenia or psychosis is not like malaria which can be treated with a one-off dose of anti-malaria medication. The mentally-ill need constant family support. They need patience and understanding. They often reject medication, telling anybody who cares to listen: Are you saying I am mad? Also, the mentally-ill are sometimes blamed by family members. ‘Snap out this; you are not the only one who has lost a job or a wife or whatever’, they often say to patients going through depression. Persons in a clinical depression cannot help themselves; they need help through expert counseling and medication. The drugs are expensive. When patients are admitted into hospitals they must pay for medication and often the doctors warn that there must be no break in treatment. The drugs are not cheap. They are not subsidized.
The huge number of persons contemplating suicide is high. We need counseling/help lines across the country to help potential suicide victims. Sadly, our laws still criminalise suicides. In other words, a person who fails in a suicide bid can be jailed according to the laws of the land. This law should be abolished. Suicide is a deep psychological problem. Survivors need help; they need empathy, and not punishment.
The field is huge. If psychiatrists could advertise or market their profession there would be a surge in the number of persons who want to see or consult them. As an exposed mind I knew that I had to see a psychologist after my traumatic experience with kidnappers. I went on to see a psychiatrist subsequently because I had to deal with flashes of the experience which kept coming long after I had been released from the hands of the scoundrels.
Depression is a serious condition that needs the help of an expert. It is not a thing to be ashamed of. Just as the body needs the attention of a doctor so the mind occasionally needs the attention of a psychologist or a psychiatrist. The non-governmental organizations dealing with mental disorders need support. This therefore is a call to public spirited persons to join the crusade to create awareness and provide help to the mentally-ill.