MENTAL ILLNESS AND PUBLIC HEALTH
Mental illness is assuming a worrying trend. It deserves more attention
Recent declaration that some 60 million Nigerians are suffering from mental illnesses requires much more rigour. But we cannot dispute the claim by Taiwo Obindo, President, Association of Psychiatrists in Nigeria that mental healthcare in the country is in a sorry state as people do not have appropriate information about the causes and treatment. This is a major public health issue that deserves adequate attention, especially since mental illnesses are neither incurable nor terminal. 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 it reaches the extreme consequence of suicide.
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 a population of about 200million, a ratio of one to 1.3 million. It also has about five mental health nurses to 100,000 Nigerians, and only eight federal neuropsychiatric hospitals, most of them not only run-down, but are located in the city centres, depriving most of the people who need the services access. It is therefore no surprise that suicide is now a common phenomenon in Nigeria. 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 affected 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.
Available reports indicate that there were over 200 diagnosable mental illnesses in Nigeria. 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 counterproductive. 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. But
there are so many who appear ‘normal’, yet may be having serious mental health challenge. We need to take them into account.