By Denrele Animasuan
“To keep the body in good health is a duty… otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear”-Buddha
They say, health is wealth and without health, wealth is meaningless. Daily living in Nigeria has tested many that their health no longer becomes a priority but an option. In fact, it becomes a distant option as people justle to simply make it through the day. They have to face arduous huddles that make staying healthy an insurmountable battle; fear of crime, power outage, lack of income or resources, poor transportation, violence, aggression, unemployment, lack of accessible infrastructure,politics, politicians,bribery, corruption,bereavement,stress of exams, family pressure, spousal violence and abuse, unrealistic expectations and discriminations and every kind of isms.
Can you see the picture? Ordinary Nigerians have got an uphill battle on a daily basis and all these factors cause a drip, drip effect on one’s health. Too much stress affects people both emotionally and physically.
Every single day, more and more young people are taking their lives in Nigeria. Young people are facing really hard time, not in training, employment, education or any prospects for the future. Admittedly, it is not isolated to young people, people of different ages are also susceptible to emotional distress. This is something unheard of years ago and it seems that it is now becoming common place and it is alarming. This should not be and as a nation, there has to be collective urgency to address the causes of emotional distress head on. Nigeria is not isolated in this matter, and it is worldwide concerns but Nigeria is failing its citizens when it comes to addressing the high level of mental illness issue and providing access to affordable treatment and interventions. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression is now the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide, and it affects an estimated 322 million people worldwide.
This number includes Nigerians of course. In March this year, I wrote in “Facing emotional difficulties”; that there is a vacuum of health professionals providing care and treatment”. Nubi Peter, a psychiatrist confirmed the current situation: that the country’s mental health system is heavily reliant on the whims of the politicians: “take for an example in Nigeria, we as Psychiatrists have been clamouring for a National suicide prevention policy. We submitted letters and had series of meetings with the government. Nothing”
So where does it leave people needing help and those who are becoming unwell? Where do they go? It leaves them facing their ordeal alone and in silence especially, when mental illness is misunderstood, feared and stigmatized by their loved ones and society in general. In many religious circles, many see people experiencing mental illness as being possessed by spirits or they are told that they are not religious enough! So many needing help are more likely to present to faith healers rather than get help in hospitals but then, they have no option due to the paucity of statutory health care services. The stigma prevents people from getting help and most family feels ashamed to access help or admit they need help. The indignity and cruelty faced by someone with mental illness is unimaginable.
There is a belief by many that mental illness happens to other people and it is not their “portion” little wonder why people do not go forward to get help. Our society is not compassionate and understanding of people needing help for their mental wellbeing. If they have physical ill health then it is a different matter entirely. Mental illness can happen to anyone and one in four people will experience this in their life time. It is not a life sentence nor is it contiguous. Many people who become unwell, help and support make full recovery and in many situations, a robust mental health promotion will help to provide information to help and prevent people from becoming unwell or to get treatment.
We, as people need to be more tolerant and compassionate of others. Mental illness can happen to anyone despite the collective repudiation and denial of many. It is apparent with what is happening to many people particularly to our young people who are responding to high stress and daily trauma. Nigeria is at a crisis point and sleep walking into a mental ill health epidemic and the government has to provide a programme to prevent further loss of promising young lives.
There is a scarcity of health professionals; a paltry one Psychiatrist to 740,000 Nigerians! This means that there is less than 250 active psychiatrists in the country and some thirty of them are unemployed and are unable to get suitable postings after spending almost a decade of training and specialisation.
Many of these psychiatrists have left Nigeria to new pasture and are abroad for a better paid job, a promising future and a better chance of becoming a specialist in the chosen field. And sadly, it does not seem that the government is doing anything to encourage them to stay or offer them incentives: by improving working conditions, better paid, given opportunity to update skills, research and knowledge, a determined drive to recruit and retain the scarce and precious commodity-doctors.
One of the most startling developments is that many more Nigerians are having an open conversation about mental illness and this is definitely a positive shift in the right direction. Not every mental illness is the same, it a large spectrum of disorders from anxiety to schizophrenia; from mild to severe.
One of the best antidote to mental illness is having someone to talk to, physical activities, listening to music, employment and a supportive network.
Also, it helps to confide in people who will not be judgemental. The biggest step is recognising when it is time to ask for help. We can help by being non-judgmental, tolerant, being a good listener, observant and noticing changes so that the person can get help earlier rather than later. Quick thinking and action may help the prognosis of the person experiencing mental distress. If someone is experiencing distress, first thing is talk to a trusted person, talk to a professional. Doing physical exercises helps as it makes people feel better by lifting their mood, sleep better and helps improve physical health. Walking 10,000 steps everyday has proven to help alleviate one’s mental wellbeing. Eating fish, balance diet and less processed food. Working is an antidote to depression, so it helps to go out and socialise. Recovery is possible and nothing is dire if help is sought earlier rather than later.
* May I take the opportunity to wish our Muslim readers, Eid Mubarak!
Denrele is off next week