Spike in mental health cases: Matters arising
Recent reports suggest that there has been an unprecedented upsurge in documented cases of mental illnesses across the country. Whereas in the past a high percentage of cases were attributed to substance abuse, experts have now concluded that the pressure, which the depressed economy has placed on families is a major cause of the spike in the condition nationwide. This is tragic and sad. It is a clarion call on all to reinforce all forms of social welfare, formal and informal, that are needed by the people in times of extreme stress.
The available statistics from the Psychiatric Hospitals in Kware, Sokoto State, Ilorin, Yaba, Uselu in Edo State, Maiduguri, Eket, Enugu, and Aro, Abeokuta are alarming. According to authorised spokespersons of all the hospitals, the number of reported cases in 2016 was significantly higher than the previous years. For example, in Sokoto State, the total number of patients seen in 2015 was about 60,000; in 2016 the number jumped to slightly above 93,000. Also, at the Federal Neuro-Psychiatrist Hospital in Yaba, in 2015 about 25,000 patients were seen, compared to about 53,000 patients in 2016. Add to this these the cases handled in traditional homes and churches and were therefore not reported. All the psychiatrists in the surveyed hospitals unanimously yet separately arrived at the same conclusion: the economic downturn and hardship have affected the finances of citizens. This is the major factor responsible for the increased cases of mental illness.
Mental health is one of the issues, which most African societies have failed to tackle with the required and necessary vigour as well as institutional framework.
In other climes, psychologists and psychiatrists routinely counsel persons who are exposed to pre-disposing conditions. In most African countries, superstitious beliefs surround mild to moderate mental (neurotic) disorders. Often when people break down mentally, family members attribute it to some misdeed, which the victim had carried out in the past. Sometimes it is attributed to ‘spiritual attacks from the enemy.’ In the villages, mentally-challenged persons are strapped or tied to heavy objects and treated harshly, left in the open in order to ‘exorcise the evil spirits’ in them. It is viewed as a tabooed subject or experience, which families are very ashamed to acknowledge. Indeed, mental illness still carries the imprint of stigmatisation.
It is on record that depressed economies also produce depressed persons. When expectations are not met or hopes for the future are completely dashed, some resort to self-pity and ultimately descend into depression. This also happens when some people suffer the loss of a loved one. That continuous self-interrogation in a negative manner sometimes erodes self-confidence and destroys the will to carry on in life. Apart from this, loss of job, marital difficulties, financial and severe illness in close relatives could result in mild or moderate mental disorder. The excessive anxieties of the modern world made more frightening by the mass and social media have not helped matters. There have been cases of cyber-bullying that has often led to termination of life by suicide. For some, the disorder arises as a delayed response to a stressful event or situation. This is what experts refer to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Returnee soldiers and kidnap victims are susceptible to this disorder.
In societies where the welfare or support system is vibrant, there is a cushion for such vulnerable ones to fall back on. Sadly, in the emerging world, people seem to be more immersed in their own challenges than to be their brothers’ keepers. Often, the support, which patients ought to get goes beyond being treated in the hospital. Families ought to be involved in ensuring that patients take their medication faithfully. The comfort provided by families and friends go a long way in the healing process.
Some persons who face serious health, social or economic challenges are usually vulnerable to mental breakdown. While some take to alcohol, others resort to hard drugs to give them an artificial or false sense of security. Gradually, they habitually depend on these substances to remain stable. There are others who succumb to peer pressure as a form of socialisation and slide into taking hard drugs. The result is often debilitating for most of them.
The truth is that mental health is like any other health challenge. It needs not be stigmatised. If anything, sufferers need both institutional and family support. It is curable with long-term management and fidelity to a strict medication regime. In most cases, people with mental health challenges are hardly aware of their condition. For this reason they resist treatment. They sometimes turn against those who care for them. It is a disease of the mind and once the mind is compromised, judgment becomes impaired. But science has developed medications to effectively control the ailment.
Another dimension to mental health issues is the inadequacy in number of trained personnel. There are not enough doctors to meet the mental needs of the nation. This is because Psychiatry does not appear to be a popular branch of medicine in Nigeria. Furthermore, care-givers in form of nurses are not enough. It is a specialised field and the government ought to give special incentives to encourage nurses to embrace this arm of nursing.
The implication is clear. Revive the economy. Create jobs. Nigeria’s school curriculum needs to give broad education to citizens. Religious and faith-based organisations have a role to play in providing succour to mentally-ill patients. In harsh times, words of encouragement to strengthen faith in oneself and God can also reduce the effect of ill fortunes. Above all, the government should take steps to ameliorate the hardship to which the vulnerable ones have succumbed.