Two weeks ago, we launched a series called “Yashafeni”, which was aimed at educating people about mental illnesses. True to its Hausa definition, the yashafeni series hoped to spread one single message: that mental illnesses aren’t just the huge elephants in our homes; it affects you, it affects me, and it affects the world around us. In the first part of the series, “The Voices in my Head”, we highlighted some of the effects of living with mental health conditions, the feelings one experiences, and the thoughts one entertains in his/her head. We ended on an upbeat note: that healing begins with making small choices – calling a helpline, opening up to someone or simply leaving your bed to take a shower. In the second part, “The Truth about My Life”, we shared the story of M, who has been battling with anxiety disorder, severe depression, bipolar disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity (ADHD). With M’s story, we emphasized on the fact that everything starts and ends with culture. If we raise children to speak up and ask questions, abuse would not be normalized and perhaps, M would have been saved from trauma induced mental illnesses.
In this third and last part of the series, we are simply asking the question: “What Next?” According to researchconducted by Aljazeera, one in four Nigerians suffers from mental illnesses. They also reported that across the country, there are fewer than 150 psychiatrists for a population of 200 million, with less than 10 percent of mentally ill Nigerians actually having access to the care they need. This is largely due to the stigma around mental health. Culturally, it is believed that it all in your head, that only white people suffer from mental illnesses, and that it is not a real illness that deserves attention. So, the first step to addressing and finding a solution to mental illnesses in Nigeria is by curbing the stigma around it.
There are many non-governmental organizations that are actively involved in taking this imitative. Reconnect HDI is on a mission to provide psychological treatment and support services to address mental health issues, while providing psychological treatment services to people and communities; Love, Peace and Mental Health Foundation (LPM) is dedicated to mental health awareness and advocacy; Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative (MANI) is currently raising awareness on mental health and illnesses and connecting service users to mental health professionals; Mental Health Foundation Nigeria (MHF-Nigeria) hopes to build a Nigerian and African society in which mental illness is not enshrouded in stigma, discrimination, and mysteries. There is also She Writes Woman (SWW), a woman-led movement of love, hope and support which envisions better lives for Nigerians by improving the way they think, feel and behave.
Last week, Hauwa Ojeifo, the Founder and Executive Director of SWW, spoke to Document Women about the need for Nigerian governments to invest in mental healthcare. In her speech, she explained that mental health is inclusive of social, economic, political and religious spheres; therefore, we don’t need to look at it from a medical lens all the time. The other alternative people go for us to look at it solely from a religious perspective, telling people living mental illnesses that they are not religious enough, that they should “pray about it” and that it’s the devil convincing them something is wrong, when there really is not.
I propose a third approach to addressing mental health in Nigeria, a solution that has proven effective time and time again. I suggest we practice empathy; that we treat people living with mental illnesses with compassion; that we are paternalistic, not patronizing, with them; that we open our hearts more, listen and spread love as far as we can. Because, really and truly, it is our lack of empathy that compounds other people’s mental health conditions. And the first step to chieving that is by affirming that “yes, yashafeni” and understanding that mental healthcare affects us all.