There is need to pay more attention to mental health

Mental illness is assuming a disturbing trend in the country. A recent disclosure by a team of medical personnel from Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital that one in every five Nigerians is vulnerable to mental illness only affirms the level of the prevalence of the disease. Notwithstanding, medical scientists argue that mental illnesses are neither incurable nor terminal. This implies that persons who suffer from this disease can recover if they promptly seek help instead of allowing it to weigh them down. When understood and spotted on time, every Nigerian with mental health challenges can seek help before severe damage sets in.

But this public health challenge is unfortunately on the rise in Nigeria because no commensurate plan has been put in place to address it. For instance, Nigeria has only about 150 psychiatrists to care for the population; that is one psychiatrist to 1.3 million Nigerians. It also has five mental health nurses to 100,000 Nigerians with only eight neuropsychiatric hospitals in the entire country. It is therefore no surprise that mental health challenge is on the rise and suicide is now a common phenomenon. From jumping into the lagoon to hanging self with rope or drinking poison, reports on suicide have moved from an occasional blip to a very disturbing trend in our country.

According to scientists, mental health includes the emotional, psychological and social well-being of people and they affect the way such individuals think, feel and behave. Medical scientists also attribute the cause of mental illness to three factors: biological, which include genes or brain chemistry; life experiences, such as trauma or abuse; and family history. Sadly, the authorities in Nigeria are not paying adequate attention to them.

During a recent community awareness campaign in Sokoto, it was disclosed that there were over 300 diagnosable mental illnesses in Nigeria. Listed as causes of these illnesses are genetics, environmental factors, infection, drugs and stress. Since those who suffer from any of these illnesses can fully recover, they are encouraged to seek help immediately they notice the signs. Family members who notice signs of mental illness in their loved ones should also not trivialise it or pretend that all is well. That will be counter-productive. Instead, they should immediately assist the victims to get to the psychiatric hospital for treatment.

Early signs of mental illness include eating or sleeping too much or too little; pulling away from people and usual activities; having low or no energy; feeling numb or behaving as if nothing matters any longer; having unusual aches and pains; feeling helpless or hopeless; smoking, drinking, or using drugs more than usual. Others are: feeling unusually confused, forgetful, staying on edge, angry, upset, worried, or scared; yelling or fighting with family and friends; experiencing severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships; having persistent thoughts and memories that you can’t get out of your head; hearing voices or believing things that are not true; thinking of harming yourself or others; and inability to perform your daily tasks such as taking care of your kids or getting to work or school.

While we counsel that everyone can avoid a sudden degeneration into mental illness by seeking professional help when they perceive that it is necessary, it is obvious that Nigeria is not yet ready to address the issue of mental health. To make matters worse, no clearly defined mental health policy has been implemented. What Nigerians must understand is that the insane man on the street who talks to himself and sleep on dirt is not the only one with mental disorder. There are many who appear ‘normal’ yet may be having serious mental health challenge. We need to take them into account.

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