There is need to give adequate attention to mental health

As part of efforts to create awareness during the World Mental Health Day last week, the Olashore International School, Lagos in collaboration with Lagos Business School held a seminar appropriately tagged “Stem the Tide”. The focus was on tackling depression, one of the commonest causes of suicide. “Mental illness, depression and suicide are spreading at an alarming rate requiring the concerted efforts of every stakeholder – parents, caregivers, and government to stem the tide,” said the Chairman, Board of Director of the school, Prince Abimbola Olashore.

Mental illness is on the rampage in Nigeria. Experts define mental illnesses as brain-based conditions that affect thinking, emotions and behaviours. About 60 million Nigerians are reportedly suffering from one mental illness or the other – from the mild to the severe. Indeed, a recent survey by a team of medical personnel from Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital said that one in every five Nigerians is vulnerable to the mental condition.

But the number is likely to grow because there is no commensurate plan in place to address it. For instance, Nigeria has only about 200 psychiatrists to care for the population of about 200 million, equivalent of one psychiatrist to one million people. “This figure, even though it sounds damning, is true and it doesn’t account for the current brain drain, which may be as close to total as possible” said Dr Dami Ajayi, a member of West African College of Psychiatry and associate fellow of National Postgraduate Medical College of Nigeria. “The few doctors who are working are not getting jobs created to fit within the tiers of clinical care.” Besides, the country has five mental health nurses to 100,000 Nigerians, and with only eight neuropsychiatric hospitals. The few mental facilities are run-down. It is therefore no surprise that the country is heading towards a mental health crisis.

According to health professionals, mental health includes the emotional, psychological and social well-being of people and they affect the way such individuals think, feel and behave. There are more than 200 classified forms of mental illness, but the more common disorders are depression, bipolar disorder, dementia, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders. They attribute the cause of mental illness to three factors: biological – which includes genes or brain chemistry; life experiences, such as trauma or abuse, and family history.

Early outward 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 confused thinking, severe mood swings; hearing voices or believing things that are not true; inability to perform daily tasks such as taking care of kids or getting to work or school.

However, mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. Like diabetes and heart disease, it is a medical condition which is treatable. Many people with mental health illness return to a productive and fulfilling life after promptly seeking help. But the country is not doing enough to tackle this public health emergency. Stemming the tide requires a multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary approach involving various government ministries, agencies and departments especially that of health, labour and employment, and social services.

Government needs to build and equip rehabilitation centres across the country while measures should be put in place to improve access to mental health services through community mental health services or primary health care. Mental health education should also be encouraged. As a forensic psychiatrist, Dr Folashade Olajubu said last week, there is need to improve awareness of the significance of suicide as a global health problem and improve the knowledge of what can be done to prevent it.