Investing in Mental Health for Adolescents

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As Nigeria last week joined the rest of the globe to mark this year’s World Mental Health Day, stakeholders have emphasised the need to address mental health issues among adolescents as part of measures to nip the scourge in the bud. Martins Ifijeh writes

As the world continues to experience the unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, there appears to be an exponential increase in mental health issues, cutting across all age brackets, as well as economic and educational status due to the anxiety, fear, social restrictions, uncertainty and emotional distress the pandemic has brought along with it since December last year.

Before the pandemic, a study by the World Health Organisation (WHO) showed that at least 450 million people were currently suffering from mental disorders, making it one of the leading causes of ill-health and disability globally.

It also showed that one in four people globally will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives; that is at least 1.7 billion persons worldwide.
However, experts are concerned that the burden of the disorder may have increased especially with the COVID-19 pandemic, with emphasis on adolescents becoming most hit by the disorder.
Statistics for Nigeria

Several indications show that over 60 million Nigerians have one form of mental disorder or the other with only about 20 per cent of persons in such category seen to have the obvious forms of it, which includes what the ordinary Nigerian refers to as madness, schizophrenia, and perhaps extreme case of drug or alcohol addiction; a reason that has largely made mental disorder in the remaining 80 per cent or 48 million Nigerians ignored or poorly understood.
To be exact, the WHO in 2017 said 7,079,815 Nigerians suffer from one of the most ignored and misunderstood form of mental disorder in the country – depression.

This, according to the world health body, represents 3.9 per cent of the entire population of the country, thereby making Nigeria the most depressed country in Africa. Globally, Seychelles has the lowest number of depressed persons with just 3,722, according to WHO in 2018.

It also said 4,894,557 Nigerians, that is 2.7 per cent of the population, suffer anxiety disorders. The country is closely followed by Ethiopia with 4,480,113 sufferers, Democratic Republic of Congo with 2,871,309, South Africa with 2,402,230, and Tanzania with 2,138,939 sufferers.

Among those most affected by the scourge are adolescents, especially in Nigeria where mental health policies for adolescents are neither defined nor implemented, hence leaving the vulnerable age bracket at the mercy of the disorder.

Beaming Light on Adolescents

It is in addressing this that the Olashore International School Foundation brought together international and Nigerian mental health experts in a virtual conference over the weekend to chat a way forward as part of its measure to commemorate this year’s World Mental Health Day held every October 10.

Sharing her thoughts at the conference, the keynote speaker and the Executive Director, Partnership for Maternal Newborn and Child Health, WHO, Dr. Helga Fogstad believed if mental health issues are tackled among adolescent Nigerians, this would go a long way in improving the country’s human capital development as well as improve the nation’s economy.

She said: “Good mental health can improve quality of life, and can help prevent risky behaviours throughout life. 1.2 billion adolescents worldwide are been affected by the scourge. This age group is most affected.

“They have just a decade to be adolescents, and the decisions we stakeholders will take during that short years of their lives will make us responsible for their mental health. Every adolescent, wherever they live should have access to mental care. They need access to information to help them protect themselves.

“With many pressure on countries to tackle COVID-19, it is now more challenging for governments to tackle issues for adolescents, including health and education. The onset of mental conditions for adults starts at teen. 75 per cent starts in their 20s, and these are often undiagnosed.”

According to her, when depression and other conditions are unchecked, they could lead to suicide and other forms of self-harm, adding that suicide has become one of the top five causes of death among adolescents.

“COVID-19 has disrupted education and social skill. This could lead to depression, stress, social anxiety and push them towards drug abuse. We must bring mental health to attention and ensure urgent action. We need to make clear key intervention for adolescent mental health. Nigerian secondary schools should have a mental health protocols,” she added.

The Medical Director, Neuropsychiatry Hospital, Yaba, Dr. Oluwayemi Ogun said 50 per cent of Nigerians will develop one form of mental health issue in their life time, adding that the country needs a comprehensive framework to tackle this.

Defining mental wellness as a balance of emotional, social, spiritual and physical wellbeing, she said: “Mental health issues in adolescents include suicide, anxiety, and depression, among others.

“With good mental health framework, the country can help manage behavior through programmes. It will lead to early management and treatment of the issues. We need to review our adolescent health framework to accommodate the times.”

He called on parents to be close to their children and their friends, adding that if they don’t, their children would rather take advices from their friends who obviously are inexperienced about mental wellbeing.

“In our culture, we don’t empower children to speak more. They are not heard or given the priority they deserve. We need to give them room to exercise their voices, otherwise they would take take their concerns to their friends or matesl” she added.

On her part, the Head of Department, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, University College Hospital, Ibadan, Dr. Tolulope Bella-Awusah, who spoke on ‘School Mental Health for the Future, Charting a Way Forward’ said adolescents have right to enjoy mental health, adding that the age bracket was critical for brain development.

“One of the places where we ccan address this mental health issue is the school. Quality of the school environment, behaviours of teachers and adults around them play major roles. Adults and teachers should also be trained on how to talk to children.

“For roadmap, we have a National School Health Policy since 2006, but no implementation so far. There is also the School Mental Health Policy Guides 2019 to help develop standalone school mental health policies for Nigerian children.

“Ideally, we should be thinking of offering the four pillars against mental disorders, which are promotion, prevention, treatment and recovery. In Nigeria, we only talk of treatment and recovery. Involve the adolescents and teachers in the solutions provided.

“Mental health is for all students, not only the difficult students. There is direct link between mental health and success in school,” she added.

The Chairperson, Olashore International School Foundation, Olapeju Sofowora said the school has long identified the gap in prevention and management of mental health issues, and has been doing its best to address the scourge, urging other stakeholders and governments at all levels to give it the attention it deserves.

She said: “Although adolescents are young, they are also very curious. A lot happen before they reach adulthood.

“The areas of intervention we have identified include school based support – we must work with identified experts to enable us develop kits to monitor and identify the issue in our children; we must, through collaboration, develop mental wellness curriculum to help manage the crisis they may face during the course of their years as adolescents.

“One of the ways of intervention is the annual conferences we do. This helps raise awareness about the issue. We need to adopt and implement policy frame work to tackle the scourge.

“As a school, we have also involved in partnership with government to ensure frameworks, curriculum and other interventions are implemented because our adolescents deserve more,” she added.