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The unspoken public health challenge: Depression, suicide and Nigeria’s declining standard of living

OUR economic discourse obsessively tracks GDP figures but fails to analyse the standard of living in real terms. Similarly, we pay very little attention to the average Nigerian’s emotional wellbeing in a system where it is virtually impossible to achieve anything without a high level of resources or connections. We talk about attracting foreign direct investment but fail to analyse why it doesn’t seem to have an impact on the lives of ordinary people.

Similarly, we are yet to accept that economic growth will not help the majority unless we tackle inequality in our society. In 2010, seven out of 10 Nigerians were already poor, and two-thirds of that number were from the North and projected to spend a lifetime in poverty, according to the Centre for Global Development. Social inclusion is not given the same attention as trade policy, yet it is central to the survival of our democracy.

Of course, if people become less poor they are more reluctant to be used as tools of violence and instability, hence why many of those bemoaning Nigeria’s current state did little to prevent our nation’s slow decline when they had the chance.
We thought we were making progress because telecoms were booming, fashion and art shows were everywhere, oil prices were high and construction was up, and with progress came all of the social ills of modernity but with none of the discourse, analysis or government programmes to keep them at bay.

Perhaps the one thing we discuss even less than inclusive growth is mental health. Both are linked. Our winner-takes-all society is producing citizens nursing a myriad of personal issues: anxiety, depression, life dissatisfaction are a result of an unjust society where individuals are damaged by pervasive inequality. We wonder why suicide is suddenly so prevalent without connecting this to the disintegrating moral fabric of a country where neither merit nor hard work is rewarded, one where we are all constantly trying to outdo or outspend each other while creating little wealth or socio-economic value.

Our country remains poor despite (some might say because of) our luxurious tastes: we put pressure on ourselves to outspend each other, the appearance of wealth matters more than sustainable production, and we fail to see that in this rat race we’re all losers; the energy spent attempting to outdo one another only benefit foreign brands and companies.
We might think our spending makes us big men in our local context but we are only big fish in a very small pond, and the pond is shrinking fast with no mass commitment, from all of us, to make the pond bigger and increase the number of fish which have access to it.
Modern living negatively affects our physical and mental health. Yet, the majority of Nigerians don’t seem to be aware of this.

No good governance without press freedom — Saraki(Opens in a new browser tab)

The more affluent the middle class becomes, the more we mindlessly consume imported products: from technology to food and beverages, everything that is a marker of higher status is slowly becoming a means to encourage poor outcomes from obesity to status anxiety, as it is done in the West.

We mistake progress and development for consuming expensive or mass-produced products we don’t really need, and human relationships suffer because of this. Parents more readily buy their children entertainment than take an interest in their lives and a “real man” is one who can afford to fund the lifestyles of several women. These behaviour patterns put pressure on individuals and the entire society; they have psychological consequences which we are yet to fully realise or condemn. The pressure to live up to the financial expectations of others, the lack of contentment the modern world mocks and discourages, is fast becoming a public health challenge.
Social media is perhaps one of the most intriguing inventions of the century. The ability to seamlessly connect with others and broadcast one’s message has obvious revolutionary potential. It also feeds into some of humanity’s worst tendencies, insecurities and status anxiety.
In a consumerist world where individuals are defined by what they own, social media easily becomes a projection of excesses as exemplified by the Nigerian culture.
For a long time, we were living a sort of dream life, pretending this was still the 1970s, when our problem wasn’t money “but how to spend it”, according to General Yakubu Gowon. We produced little besides oil and felt we were literally too big to fail.

Unrealistic expectations

Entire generations grew up with outsized, unrealistic expectations based on the lifestyles exemplified by those at the top. The current travails of now infamous musicians such as Naira Marley who was questioned by the EFCC due to his alleged connection to internet fraudsters or “yahoo boys”, is but one example of a culture of overindulgence, dissipation and extravagance.
Ironically, Dino Melaye, a senator, said on Twitter recently: “I am afraid of the revenge of the poor… Housing segregation puts us the elite in jeopardy. Ikoyi, Banana, Maitama, Asokoro, etc. Our leaders + I beware of violent revolution. Perilous times loading”.

Yet, the bills he and his colleague’s sponsor do not seem to reflect this sense of urgency. The idea of a revolution in a not too distant future is not unconnected to the phenomenon of mass unhappiness and dissatisfaction taking over Nigeria.
Nigerians are grappling with many frustrations and the same loneliness as elsewhere in the world.

Our country offers too few opportunities for self-realisation for us to believe that people will forever accept a society where one’s aspirations are only realisable if one cheats and steals one’s way into becoming an upper class. Will the new leadership of the National Assembly work on bills to uplift the standard of living?

State governors

The Nigeria Governors Forum has rejected the financial autonomy recently granted to local governments.

The NGF Chairman and Governor of Zamfara State, Abdulaziz Yari, signed a letter to President Buhari stating the NGF’s displeasure. Many of those in office do not support the sort of radical, structural change which could really make a difference in Nigeria. One wonders, in fact, how many of those around the President himself truly believe in his professed agenda.

The NGF statement asked the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit to focus on anti-money laundering and combatting those who finance terrorism. How can this be done without looking more closely at the use of local government funds? How long will Nigerians tolerate this hypocrisy?

Obasanjo

The former President outraged many leaders and former associates by stating Boko Haram is proof of a plot to Islamize West Africa. Like Reno Omokri and Femi Fani-Kayode, he believes there is a “fulanisation” agenda. It’s a shame that so-called statesmen continue to play dangerous games, pitting Nigerians against one another, using the tools of misinformation and demagoguery to do so.

Statistically, Boko Haram has killed more Muslims than Christians in the North where its attacks have been concentrated. In fact, not all the Chibok girls are Christians. Some people are smartly using the North/South, Christian/Muslim divide to enforce their own agenda. It is also quite ironic that Obasanjo believes “the twin evils of Boko Haram and marauding cattle herders were initially treated with kid gloves” whereas both issues were already present under his administration.

Wikileaks cables allege they were ignored and allowed to fester for political reasons not unrelated to the third term agenda. To quote Dr. Junaid Mohammed, a Second Republic lawmaker: “every Nigerian leader should be blamed for the mess we find ourselves in. We must blame in totality the political class who have not handled the economy and politics well.

They have been very divisive in their ways”. He questioned Obasanjo’s alleged meddling in the politics of Sharia when it was introduced, and the use of religion (by both Christians and Muslims) to divide Nigerians. We must interrogate politicians’ utterances and actions which might not be unconnected to their loss at the polls.

Tabia Princewill is a strategic communications consultant and public policy analyst. She is also the co-host and executive producer of a talk show, WALK THE TALK which airs on Channels TV.

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