The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines health as ‘the state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, and not the mere absence of disease or infirmity’. Sometimes we forget that mental health is also as important as the physical and not just a side show that can be swept under a rug.
Mental health (as defined by WHO)as a state of wellbeing 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 his or her community. Some of you are probably reading that definition again to find out if you meet the criteria. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. The truth is mental health involves much more than we may stereotypically assume.
Mental illness is more common than you may think. There was this study that was published some years back which ranked Nigeria as “the happiest country in the world”. Well, I don’t know about that. We can appear to be the happiest country, we can appear to have it all together, but I beg to differ. We live in an economy which is almost designed to cause us stress. You might wake up thinking, “you know what? Today I’m going to be so calm and I won’t lash out at anyone” and then find yourself four hours later yelling at the bus driver that almost scratched your car while doing ‘one-way’, all in the middle of a terrible traffic that you’ve been in for 30 minutes literally staying at the same spot. Oh let’s not forget, in the heat of the scorching sun.
Jobs, school, family, the society at large, they all take a toll on your emotions sometimes and these things can reflect on your state of mind. Even when there is no aggravating incident, it is still possible to not be mentally healthThat is totally okay, it is bound to happen at some point. However somewhere in our culture we believe that seeking help for emotional issues is not important. “You just need to get over it”, a lot of us would say. As if the people affected can get back to being whole by just wanting to. If they could they wouldn’t be in that state.
It hurts when families of people having symptoms of mental illness are the ones who discourage them from seeking help because of “what will people say?” Instead of encouraging people to open up, the best advice some Nigerians give is basically “fake it till you make it”. Unfortunately, some do not make it, and that’s the point at which they commit suicide. Everyone gets sad at such suicide stories. It’s shocking and a bit ironic that people have more sympathy for the dead who battled with mental illness than for the living who are affected by these same things.
Having a mental illness does not make one a mad person. There’s still a lot of stigma and discrimination against people with mental illnesses because a lot of Nigerians still think mental illness equals madness. This is far from the truth. Mental illness is a wide spectrum of difficulties, from depression to anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, addictions, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, the list is endless. If you Google any of these, the symptoms hardly ever begin with running down the street naked. A lot of these people are still able to walk about looking apparently normal and be suffering on the inside. I believe that the majority of mentally ill people are not on the wards in hospitals looking like the man in the picture at the top, but on the street, in the market, at the workplace, and everywhere else. They are all around us, trying to keep it together though their insides may be slowly falling apart.
Although Nigeria is slowly but surely making progress in this area, there is still more work to be done. A lot of people with these issues feel too ashamed to open up or ask for help because they feel they will be look at as outcasts. This shouldn’t be so. Mental illness is not “oyibo people disease” (I’ve heard people say this about depression), it affects anyone regardless of geographical location. Please encourage anyone around you who may have any of these symptoms is in need of psychological/counselling services to seek professional help. Please take the time to educate those around you who may still have this stigmatizing mindset. Finally, if you are not mentally healthy, know that you’re not alone, and there is help for you if you reach out. Please don’t suffer in silence.
Less stigmatization of mental illness means a safer environment for affected people to seek help, and better outcomes for them, and invariably for us all.
Thanks for reading through.
I found this article which I think has more detail on mental health care in Nigeria and suicide prevention hotlines, you can read it up here.
PHOTO EDITED BY: Sope Sogunle