The Federal Government revealed in November 2018 that 40 million Nigerians suffer from one form of mental disorder or the other.
The prevalence of mental illness in the country should mean a high level of awareness on mental health. But that really isn’t the case. In fact, the number of skilled professionals in mental health is quite low. Currently, there are only 130 psychiatrists in Nigeria despite the population of over 180 million.
Nonetheless, efforts are being made to boost the level of awareness and in this post, we take a look at the current level of awareness and how the understanding of mental illness in Nigeria has evolved over the years.
Mental Health in Nigeria: Perceptions & Awareness
Many years ago, there was a lot of misconception and misinformation about the subject of mental health amongst Nigerians.
During that time, people with mental illnesses were burned, hanged, mutilated, abandoned and restrained with chains, all in the bid to save their souls, or bring redemption to their families and curb the iniquities causing mental illness within the families. These beliefs on the etiology of mental illness shape attitudes and have been shown to have a huge impact on the acceptance of the mentally ill amongst Nigerians.
Overall, the general belief is that there are supernatural or spiritual forces, witches, and evil spirits that cause mental illness and this belief system has influenced the attitude of Nigerians towards the mentally ill.
However, in recent years, people are beginning to understand that there is more to mental illness than witches and wizards.
In fact, there are over 200 classified forms of mental illness. Some of the more common disorders are depression, bipolar disorder, dementia, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders. The symptoms of these disorders include changes in mood, personality, personal habits and/or social withdrawal.
Also, mental health problems have been linked to excessive stress due to a particular situation or series of events. As with cancer, diabetes and heart disease, mental illnesses are often physical as well as emotional and psychological.
Overall, mental illnesses may be caused by a reaction to environmental stresses, genetic factors, biochemical imbalances, or a combination of these.
Taking a look at the Nigerian society, the negative attitude of people to the mentally ill includes referring to these people as dangerous, suspicious, unstable, unreliable, irresponsible, and homicidal. These labels on the behaviour of the mentally ill have aggravated stereotypes and provoked further prejudices on people with mental illnesses.
Consequently, persons with mental illness often have to struggle with a double problem. First, they have to cope with the symptoms of the disease itself; depending on the particular mental disorder they may be having problems such as recurrent hallucinations, delusions, anxiety or mood swings. These symptoms can make it difficult for someone with mental illness to work, live independently or achieve a good quality of life.
Secondly, the misunderstandings of society about the various mental disorders result in stigma. Some persons who manage their mental illness well enough to work still have tremendous difficulties finding a job because employers discriminate against them.
As a result, mental illness results not only in the difficulties arising from the symptoms of the disease but also in the disadvantages associated with societal reactions. Sometimes, people with mental illness may accept the common prejudices about mental illness causing them to turn against themselves, and creating a loss of confidence.
In recent years, the perception of mental illness is starting to change and this is expected to result in a better and more improved mental health care within the country.
Additionally, the government and private advocacy groups have made efforts to improve the level of awareness on mental health in order to reduce stigma. The first mental health policy was formulated in 1991 in Lagos. Its components include advocacy, promotion, prevention, treatment and rehabilitation.
In 2003, another bill for the establishment of Mental Health Act was introduced by Sen. Ibiabuye Martyns-Yellowe and Sen. Dalhatu Tafida.
The bill protects the rights of persons with mental disorders, ensure equal access to treatment and care, discourage stigma and discrimination and set standards for psychiatric practice in Nigeria. The bill makes provisions for access to mental healthcare and services, voluntary and involuntary treatment, accreditation of professional and facilities, law enforcement and other judicial issues for people with mental illness, Mechanisms to oversee involuntary admission and mechanism to implement the provision of Mental health Legislations.
The bill was withdrawn in April 2009 but re-introduced in 2013 to the National Assembly by Hon. Samuel Babatunde Adejare and Hon. Solomon Olamilekan Adeola. However, it is yet to be passed into law.
Nonetheless, NGOs and the government of different states have made efforts to increase awareness on mental health in the last decade.
The not-for-profit initiatives include Centre for Mental Health Research and Initiative (CEMHRI), Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative, the Mental Health Awareness Nigeria Initiative and Beautiful Mind and Wellness Foundation (BMWF)
In 2012, BMWF was established to provide awareness on mental health issues in Ghana and Nigeria. This organization provides awareness through advocacy, education, and evidence-based treatment interventions. BMWF is the forefront on mental health prevention and intervention through education and training with efforts to increase awareness and reduce stigma and discrimination in Nigeria and Ghana.
Also, the Lagos State Government in a bid to ensure the mental well-being of its citizens has committed to a mental health policy which seeks to combat stigma and discrimination against groups and individuals with mental health problems. Part of the recommendation is the expansion and improvement of the current systems of mental health delivery in Lagos state, provision of cost-effective interventions and effective care, enhancing human resources, establishing national health policies, programmes and legislation as well as encouraging communities, families and users to be involved and engaged in the reduction of stigma and discrimination.
Edo state is also making effort to improve awareness on mental illness with the use of radio and television to provide friendly platforms for people so as to interact, with the intention of sensitizing and mobilizing others to collectively or individually support social causes of mental illness.