Osagie Ehanire

Ugonna Orji

In 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) confirmed in a study that one in four people worldwide will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lifetime; representing at least 1.7 billion persons worldwide. This estimate was before the COVID-19 pandemic started and devastated millions of homes, economy and governments.

Today, not fewer than 450 million people are currently suffering from such conditions; making mental disorders one of the leading causes of ill-health worldwide. Experts believe by the end of COVID-19, this number will shut up by over 100 per cent.

To be clear, mental health disorder has been ranked the fourth leading cause of global disease burden. Before the next decade, WHO believed the public health challenge will be ranked second highest disease burden globally – just behind heart problems.

Despite being an alarming public health issue due to the large populations affected, studies have shown that mental disorder has not been taken as a priority the world over, especially in low and middle-income countries like Nigeria, where it is still very misunderstood.

With the effect of COVID-19, coupled with increased economic constrictions, financial hardships, stretched lockdowns and the accompanying poverty it brings, it is not out of place to say much more persons, in nations like Nigeria, are moving from mental health into mental disorder.

Although this scenario is a no-brainer, not many Nigerians, along with some political stakeholders, understand the importance of mental health. Oftentimes when it is mentioned, what comes to mind is the picture of insane men and women with a particular spectrum of behaviour not in conformity with the general form of living. They believed the typical naked and dirty person on the street who picks un-useful things in sight and talks periodically to himself is the ideal person with mental disorder.

What we are yet to understand is that there are several types of mental disorders in the country. One of the commonest is depression which has unfortunately affected 7,079,815 Nigerians, according to the WHO in 2017.
Studies have shown that young adults moving into depression by the day have snowballed.

Specifically, about 25 per cent of young adults are depressed in the country, 26.2 per cent of adults are depressed, while 17 per cent of persons in Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are depressed. Research also showed that in various parts of the country, about 20 per cent to 59 per cent of people living with HIV/AIDS are depressed, with the highest prevalence reported in the North-central part of the country. These statistics have suggested that depression – as a type of mental disorder – is very common in the country. Several persons are also battling with anxiety, schizophrenia, drug addiction, bipolar disorder, eating disorder, among others.

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.

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.

While all forms of mental disorders are being advocated against by the health body as priority by all member nations, including Nigeria, it is believed that the poorly misunderstood types, especially depression, should be tackled head on before they silently destroy mankind. Depression has been tagged the leading cause of suicide globally. 800,000 people take their lives every year across the globe.

Within the last four years, the Nigerian media reported about 264 suicide cases. It is safe to say that number is only a fraction of the hundreds of Nigerians who have taken their own lives within the last four years, mostly due to depression which could be a trigger from hardships, disappointments, poverty, heartbreaks, among others.

It is time for experts, stakeholders and the society at large to beam light on this public health issue.

Depression is preventable and treatable

According to a new book recently launched in Nigeria – The Morning After – written by a health journalist, Martins Ifijeh and a consultant psychiatrist, depression can be prevented and it is treatable. If understood and spotted on time; every Nigerian developing the condition can timely seek help before it reaches the extreme consequence, suicide.

WHO says depression is not just a feeling of sadness but a real illness which affects the brain, adding that feeling of sadness could easily go away, but depression is a serious health condition that requires proper treatment and counselling.

Nigeria Has No Defined Mental Health Policy

Nigeria must slow down this growing condition by putting mental health policies in place to prevent, identify and treat people suffering from it. Nigeria has no clearly defined mental health policy.

There is a Mental Health Bill lying in the National Assembly for over 10 years. This document should be dusted, amended to meet the times, and then passed into law. This way, we can say we are serious about tackling mental health issues in the country.

Nigerians who are depressed should visit the hospital. Psychiatric illness is not spiritual. Instead of approaching healing homes, include a visit to the hospital or mental health counsellor, while also praying for healing. Don’t make neuropsychiatric care a last resort when feeling depressed.

…Orji, an international analyst, wrote from Abuja.

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