According to the World Health Organization, mental health is: “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

In my home country of Nigeria, which has an estimated population of 186 million people, youth between the ages of 15 and 24 – a demographic which, due to a number of psychosocial and political factors, are most vulnerable to adverse mental health fluctuations - account for 19.48% of the population.

Psychiatrists say the most commonly diagnosed mental illnesses in Nigeria are mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety disorders. People who suffer from depression often experience long term feelings of sadness, emptiness and worthlessness, a low sense of self- esteem and suicidal thoughts. These can cause the individual to become alienated from their peers because of perceived unattractive personality traits or behaviours.

Some mental illnesses develop seemingly organically, whilst others may be induced by trauma or chemical experimentation. Psychoactive substance abuse among adolescents and youths is prevalent - cannabis, tranquilizers, cocaine and inhalants are some of the most commonly abused substances – and it accounts for around 10% of cases treated in all mental health facilities, making substance abuse one of the leading cause of mental disorders among youths between the ages of 18 and 25, this can be hard to reconcile with the commonly-held African myth that young people and children don’t suffer from mental health illnesses. But it is a very real truth that children and young adults do suffer from mental health disorders that can severely disrupt their ability to function at home, in school, and in the community. Studies have shown that mental health challenges manifest in 1 out of 5 children and adolescents in schools, including primary and high schools, as well as universities and other higher institutions. The resultant effect of this is an enormous margin within any given classroom of students suffering from compromised learning and academic performance.

In Nigeria, the topic of mental health has not attracted much information; individuals with mental health challenges are often stigmatized, or neglected by their peers and family members due to the mistaken belief that their condition does not have a solution. In many cases, people with symptoms of mental illness either remain undiagnosed completely, or are not diagnosed swiftly enough to receive time-sensitive health intervention. Even with a diagnosis, the struggle remains. Many people diagnosed as living with some form of mental illness fail to receive appropriate treatment due to a lack of mental health infrastructure, stigma, and harmful traditional beliefs. Because Nigeria is a highly religious and superstitious country, rife with faith-healers and animists, any sign of abnormal behaviour or mental challenge is usually characterized as a “spiritual attack”, a demonic possession, or the consequences of some divine judgement. In these contexts, the victim may be rushed to any of the ubiquitous traditional healing centres that provide unverified – or even harmful – treatment options, and no thought is given to the notion of seeking appropriate medical attention.

Young people with mental health challenges often have to cope with a double-edged situation. 

First:

Their Experiences. Depending on the particular condition, they may be trying to navigate complex experiences such as hallucinations, anxiety, panic attacks, delusions or mood swings. These experiences are not only difficult to endure, but can be a source of rationalization for the person affected to avoid treatment, rather than seek it. 

Second:

Stigma. Stigmatization of mental health issues – and by extension, the people impacted by them - deprives people seeking mental health support their full measure of human dignity, undermines social support, and compromises opportunities for treatment. 

As is evident from these two factors – and so many others too complex to detail here - mental illnesses are not only difficult because of their immediate impact, but also because of societal reactions to people living with mental illness.

Nigeria’s health infrastructure greatly neglects mental health support services, which makes it especially difficult for young people to receive education, diagnostic support, or even acknowledgement from a professional that their experiences may not be “normal”.

The challenge of addressing stagnant mental health frameworks and reducing stigma in the community are both large ones, but by no means insurmountable. By reviewing some of Nigeria’s legal and policy frameworks, such as the National Policy For Mental Health, National Mental Health Programme, and National Therapeutic Drug Policy, we can ensure that systemic understanding of mental health issues reflect present day realities and priorities. Expedited passage of the Mental Health Bill through Nigerian parliament will overcome the existing challenge of limited funding for mental health by mandating Local Governments and State Governments to also provide funding for the provision of mental healthcare in Primary Healthcare Centres and State General Hospitals.

The National Policy For Mental Health, if implemented, makes provisions for the rights of individuals with mental disorders to treatment and support in the health centres closest to them, discourages discrimination and stigmatization of mentally ill persons on account of their illness, and provides funding for the training of healthcare personnel in psychosocial skills and positive attitudes towards the mentally ill. It also emphasizes the promotion of healthy attitudes towards mental illness, training for teachers on basic management at school level, ensures schools follow good practice guidelines for children with mental challenges which can allow for increased awareness and understanding about mental health in schools, colleges, and universities. This can, in turn, provide avenues for young people to engage with support networks as necessary, both of the aforementioned issues can be addressed in one fell swoop.

Existing social structures and support systems can and must be be strengthened to serve as a strong basis for innovative efforts to demystify mental illnesses and integrate basic mental health interventions into routine community activities. But the government must lead the charge alongside the community, or millions of people will continue to live at an artificially compromised capacity, instead of their best selves – the selves they’re meant to be. 

 

About the Author.