by Abimbola Adelakun
The Nigerian Medical Association, recently, joined the throng of those who call for psychiatric evaluation for would-be occupiers of political office. The communiqué released after the body’s National Executive Committee meeting wants the Independent National Electoral Commission to engage psychiatrists who will supervise such tests. I know if I were given pre-austerity N1,000 note each time someone recommended psychiatric evaluation for Nigerian politicians, I would be ready to throw a self-financed Owambe by now.
Just this September, the Peoples Democratic Party Chairman in Edo State, Dan Orbih, wanted governorship candidates to obtain a certificate of mental fitness before contesting elections in Nigeria. Orbih’s suggestion must have been informed by the erratic way his colleagues behave in public -and in private. For a politician like Orbih to announce that the asylum has been taken over by inmates, it means there is indeed a cause for worry. But Orbih, like most people who have toed this line, mostly say such because their conception of psychiatric illness comes from a layman’s point of view. However, if the NMA should make a similar suggestion, then it deserves some attention.
First, did the NMA conduct scientific studies on the “misbehaviour” of public office holders before making this call? How does the body even define the range of behaviours that should be red flagged and why did they conclude it is pathological? How does the NMA propose we distinguish between an uncultured politician and the one who has nervous disorder? None of the media reports of their communiqué delved into details. I am not certain whether it was the media that was being sketchy in its reports or it was the NMA that was treating an otherwise serious issue with flippancy. Can the NMA please share its findings with the public?
From what I know about mental illness and the society’s understanding of it, it is a medical condition that deserves to be treated with respect and knowledge-based analysis. I grew up in a city where a lot of “mad” people roamed the streets – sometimes naked, sometimes violent. Like most uninformed persons, I believed their condition was a consequence of some metaphysical power until my university days when I met someone who told me he had once gone round the bend and walked the streets in rags for years until an enlightened relative took him to the hospital. At the time he was narrating his experience to me, he was working on his doctorate.
More perplexing about the NMA’s communiqué is the fact that what constitutes psychiatric disorders is wide ranging: They could range from anxiety disorder to one that is characterised by violent behaviours. It helps to unpack the categories, as lumping all forms of psychiatric conditions under one umbrella can be counterproductive. Which one(s) on the spectrum should disqualify a candidate for public office? If a politician passes a psychiatric test and ends up winning a public office, is that any guarantee such a person will not “misbehave”? If the person fails the test, and is disqualified, does that not amount to judging them based on what they might never do? Are there legal implications of this presumption?
The ambiguity in the NMA’s stand, I suspect, is a consequence of the language we use to express psychiatric cases. It could range from colloquial to medical. We choose between “crazy” “mad” “lunatic” “schizophrenic” “psychotic” and similar words to convey the same idea. In fact, the term “were” in Yoruba language can be used to express a genuine case of psychiatric illness as insult or even a term of endearment. What differentiates each is the context. This broad sociolinguistic usage is one reason I encourage the NMA to engage the public further on its recommendation.
It is also important the body clarifies its stand because of the nature of mental illness itself. A number of studies show that mentally ill people do not seek medical help because of the stigma associated with the condition. In certain cases, conditions that could have been treated at the outset of the disorder are allowed to fester because sufferers – and their relatives – do not want to be stigmatised.
Nervous disorder, if it becomes public, can affect other members of the family so people do not do the needful most of the time. In some societies, it could affect the chances of a sufferer’s relative to find a spouse. Even when people seek help, they tend to look towards “spiritual” healers and similar charlatans who subject patients to atrocious conditions in the hope of exorcising their demons. If the NMA wants to suggest psychiatric evaluation for politicians because of their public conduct, it is important it purges its terms of all ambiguity so they do not further demonise psychiatric condition for people who are not seeking help because they are constrained by shame and stigma.
Equally important, the NMA, especially because of its position, should not trivialise mental health issues by providing an escape route for those who will excuse their irresponsibility by any means possible. For the most part, the failings of our leaders are attributable to their personal and moral rottenness, and that has little or nothing to do with pathology. I will rather we blame the thoughtless acts of Nigerian politicians on the looseness of the social and political structures.
If we take the route of psychiatry to analyse these things, how long before those who routinely dip their hands in public coffers begin to claim that they have a bolt loose in their heads? Would it mean that people will end up in a mental hospital instead of jail? What if a politician embezzles a whole treasury but insists on attributing it to psychiatric issues, how do we deal with it? Invent a disorder and upend medical literature for their sake? Considering instances where people have claimed mental problems to escape responsibility for their crimes, will this not result in further legal manipulation?
Come to think of it, what are the motivations for our politicians to do the right thing when it is easier to do otherwise and even be applauded for it? In Nigeria, it is those who return from jail for misuse of public funds who stand on the soap box, unrepentant and brimming with self-righteousness, that teach the rest of us how to regulate our morals. Politicians who have no qualms rigging elections in the name of God are the ones who go to Israel with the President to pray for the country. Why, in the midst of such a morass, would anyone aspire to be “well” unless you are driven by a personal conviction?
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.