Untold burden of mental health in Nigeria


By Dr. Ashiru Aminu

In a culture which doesn’t recognize and appreciate mental health-related problem as part and parcel of human destiny just like physical medical conditions, one wouldn’t be baffled at all to discover how people display a flagrant disregard not only to the persons afflicted but also to the process of ensuring people have access to affordable mental health services brought as close to where they live and work.

Needless to dramatize the figures, most people abreast of the mental health indices know that 1 in every 4 people in the world may develop a mental illness at some point in their lives. This is arguably true to say about 52 million Nigerians might develop mental health problem during their lifetimes. Furthermore, one doesn’t have to google on the internet to find out someone that has had or is having a mental illness; cases of mental illness are very much around us, in our homes, schools, places of work and worship, in boardrooms and supermarkets and in every sphere of our lives.

It’s time to demystify that mental picture people usually have as one and only representation of mental illness- which is that of unkempt, bare-footed vagrant person who eats from the garbage and drinks from the gutter and oftentimes voraciously smoking a cigarette with a chunk of smoke disappearing into the sky.
This stereotype has outlived its period and in fact, it was a reckless disregard on the part of the people responsible to care for that person that degenerated to such a stereotypical representation and no one deserve to be like that as long as they have access to mental health services.

Mental illness is treatable just like any other non-communicable diseases such as Hypertension and Diabetes. Having said that, let’s bring the concept of mental health home by defining what it’s before delving on what mental illness is all about. According to the World Health Organization (WHO): “Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

Mental health is all about how people think, feel and behave. It’s paramount at this juncture to stress that mental health is more than just absence of mental illness but also it is actively maintaining ongoing wellness as well as striking harmonious balance between your thought, emotion and behaviour. It also cut across all areas of functioning such as personal, interpersonal, occupational, educational etc. Therefore, any sustained distressful disruption in cognition, emotion and behaviour is considered as a mental disorder.

Mental illness is not a single entity as previously thought (my apologies to Wilhelm Griesinger) but rather an umbrella containing various entities, of course with overlaps and the likelihood of different but related disorders to co-occur. This may include things like Anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, bipolar affective disorders, substance use disorders, schizophrenia spectrum disorders, personality disorders, stress-related disorders, eating disorders, sexual disorders, neurodevelopmental disorders, the list continues.

There is a bidirectional relationship between physical and mental illness and therefore disruption in one may result in the other and vice versa. The duo is often exemplified as the similitude of a hardware and software respectively, in which exists a delicate balance in their functioning and a synchrony is much desired for a smooth operation.

If the above analogy is true and is widely accepted, then why is it taken people this long to accept the concept of mental illness and to shy away from all the stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination as well as the visibly palpable stigma that revolves around mental illness. Let’s support the people afflicted and encourage them to get treatment. Treatment exists and is very promising.

To buttress the aforementioned facts, it deems apt to remind us how recent advances in the field of neuroscience and functional neuroimaging clearly demonstrated neurotransmitters disturbances in various parts of the brain depending on the illness in question and this clearly manifests clinically as dysfunction of these specific areas.

I want to use this medium to call on the government, individuals and various stakeholders to remain steadfast and relentless in championing the course of mental health across the globe by integrating it to primary healthcare, heightening awareness and advocacy until everyone has access to mental health services in order to have healthy and productive citizens.

10th October of every year is observed as the World Mental Health Day and this year’s theme is Mental Health for All-Greater Investment – Greater Access. This is particularly so when COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc in different parts of the world with resultant worsening of the already treated cases and the emergence of new cases in those without mental illnesses.

Finally, we need to have an open conversation about mental health-related problems and ensure mental health services are available, accessible and affordable for all. The time is now and as advocates, we must make our voices heard now or never! We must change these detrimental stereotypes and prejudices that prevent people from seeking help and left them and their families with no opinion but to continue to live in agony!


Dr. Abdurrahman Ashiru writes in commemoration of the world mental day

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