I was diagnosed with depression during my final year of medical school. Since then it’s been a struggle of relapses and recovery. Sharing my story makes things easier. If I tell you my experience it’s easier for you to share yours.
I remember I wrote a sort of suicide note when I was 12. At that age I self-harmed as well. I didn’t speak to anyone about how I was feeling. What was I going to say?
That was the first time I started feeling something wasn’t right, but I didn’t know what it was. Even at medical school, I still couldn’t figure it out.
I didn’t go to see the doctor out of choice. I was talked into it by my friends. I always think I’m one of the lucky ones - I had friends who knew the signs of depression. A large percentage of Nigerians don’t have access to people who can help them at the early stages of their illness. Most people have to really get in a very bad state to get help.
My diagnosis has helped me to accept what’s going on. All I asked for from my friends was to be treated the same way. I'm not fragile - I didn’t want to be treated like an egg.
I founded an organisation, MANI, which looks to help people talk freely about their mental health.
In Nigeria we have so many issues with people resorting to spiritual means, cultural practices and traditional mental health healing centres.
When stigma exists, discrimination happens. People don’t want to be associated with anybody that has anything to do with mental health issues.
We try to make people understand when we talk about mental health issues, this spans from depression, which is not even seen in Nigeria as a mental health issue - to schizophrenia, which is seen as a ‘curse’.
Support from family and peers makes recovery possible. Society has the power to help you accept your diagnosis and seek help. If we create environments where people know its fine to talk about mental health, help-seeking becomes easy. People realise they can walk into a psychiatric hospital without being tagged, ‘mad’. Most people who come to a psychiatric specialist travel from far away to avoid being seen by their neighbours.
The stories we were told by our parents and their parents before them affect how we perceive mental health now.
If you want to get married your parents do a lot of research into your partner and their family just to find out if anyone has had mental health issues. If there has been, they’ll call off the wedding. This still happens even in this day and age.
People believe if someone has mental health issues, they have been cursed. Or people say the person is not in tune with their God. Or they’ve done something really evil. Everything is blamed on mental health.
In politics, if someone does something bad, people say, “that person is mad, get him checked out.” Because society says mentally ill people are crazy and they do all the bad things in society, it is hard for someone like me to accept, actually I am mentally ill.
The discussions are increasing, especially among young people. We are seeing a change. We know a lot of young people have issues to deal with and we know they are interested in speaking about it and now they know there’s a community that accepts them.
We’ve had people who’ve called to say they don’t want it on their employment record that they have a mental health issue. They ask us to recommend a psychiatric hospital they can go to which won’t record this. Even if it means they have to pay out of pocket.
We hear from people who have had to deal with it in psychiatric hospitals where even the doctors have stigmatising attitudes. Some therapists tell people, “why don’t you just get better – you’re too young to be mentally ill.” Some psychiatrists let their spirituality influence them. They’ll tell a patient, “I have a pastor who can help you”.
You find more Nigerians in churches and mosques than anywhere else. Especially in rural areas, churches can be very judgemental about mental health. They say, ‘a child of God has no business being depressed’. You end up feeling worse. Now even your church, which is supposed to be a support, doesn’t accept you. You’re told you’ve let the devil in and that’s why you’re coping with the darkness of depression.
Churches and mosques are such important communities. We want to have conversations with these influential people and ask them, do you think mental health is just a spiritual issue? We don’t want to dismiss the spiritual totally because if you do that you won’t get anywhere. We need to see how we can combine both spiritual and medical recommendations to make sure people get help.
Across Africa we have the same sort of issues when it comes to stigma. African parents’ way of raising their children often relies on fear. There is a lack of communication. Children and teenagers are not listened to which makes mental health issues worse.
Children of 10, 11 and 12 have told me their parents are going to take them for deliverance sessions or to the mountain for prayers or exorcism because they think they’re possessed rather than mentally ill. Parents need to be friends with their kids so they can talk about mental health.
At MANI, we know working with young people can help change attitudes towards mental health.