The authorities could do more to tame this public health emergency

Mental illness is on the rampage in Nigeria. But despite knowing about it, the health authorities have not shown enough commitment to dealing with the challenge on which there is so much superstition and ignorance. According to the House of Representatives, three out of every 10 Nigerians have one form of mental illness or another. To this end, the House mandated its committees on health Institutions and healthcare services to liaise with the federal ministry of health on how to tackle the challenge.

The resolution followed a motion titled ‘Need to address the rising cases of mental health in Nigeria’ presented by Hon. Uchechuku Nnam- Obi who noted that “Nigeria has only 130 psychiatrists with over 20 million citizens suffering from mental disorders.” He added that with the few functional mental health facilities and inadequate mental health practitioners in the country, “mental health cases are left for traditional practitioners.” As bad as the situation may seem, the number of Nigerians suffering from one mental illness or the other – from the mild to the severe – is likely to grow because there is no commensurate plan in place to address the problem.

According to 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. Meanwhile, experts define mental illnesses as brain based conditions that affect thinking, emotions and behaviours. They include 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 include 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. 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 multidisciplinary approach involving various government ministries, agencies and departments especially that of health, labour and employment, and social services. Government needs to build and equip rehab centres across the country while measures should be put in place to improve access to mental health services through community mental health or primary health care.

Mental health education should also be encouraged. As a forensic psychiatrist, Folashade Olajubu once argued, 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