Mental health is the state of a person’s psychological well-being and in Nigeria, the discourse of mental health is largely ignored. Even when discussed, mental health is often related with spiritual problems with victims being discriminated against.
Because of the absence of a mental health system in Nigeria, people with mental illnesses and disorders hardly have any access to proper treatment or care. The Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative (MANI) is one of the very few non-governmental organisations that concerns itself with all the issues that surround stigmatisation of victims and demystification of all the myths that trail mental health in Nigeria.
In this interview with YNaija’s Impact365, we learn about all the past and future activities of MANI in educating Nigerians about mental health and referring victims for treatment.
Can you please tell us more about Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative?
Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative (M.A.N.I) started as a result of unmet needs identified in the area of mental health in Nigeria. Our major aim is to alleviate stigma and the suffering arising from it by adequately educating the public thereby reducing ignorance and negligence of the health of the mind by individuals, society, federal setups and the locales. Also, that it becomes known that those affected by these illnesses, have a right to life with dignity and therefore a right to assistance. We are driven by our commitment to promote mental health as a critical part of overall wellness, including early identification and intervention for those at risk, integrated health, behavioral health and other services for those who need them, with adequate recovery as a goal. Also, advocacy and research.
How long has the NGO been around and how much impact can you say you’ve made?
We launched about 6 months ago, July 2016 to be specific. The response has been quite overwhelming. It appears that we burst a bubble on a discourse that had been bothering Nigerians for a long while with better explanations and relatability. We’ve helped provide support to over 100 service users and their family members from our launch till date.
Our organization has over 200 volunteers from all walks of life, not just health professionals who are pushing our cause and sparking mental health conversations. Each campaign so far has been a huge success in terms of reach and feedback. So, for a young organization, I’ll say we’re doing awesomely well and we hope to do more this year.
What is the general Nigerian belief about mental health and how do you try to influence this?
Mental health in Nigeria is shrouded in myth and like most African countries, mental illnesses have always been believed to have a spiritual cause with sufferers treated as societal outcasts and with spiritual healers trying to treat them in the most inhumane ways possible.
We have embarked on myth-busting conversations on our social media pages to try to debunk as many myths as we can and also replace them with concrete information. Another thing we do regularly is to educate and enlighten people about mental illnesses via the same medium. Also, we’ve had the ‘religion in relation to mental health’ talk which sparks a lot of controversy as always but is a work in progress.
Since religion is a vital part of our lives/belief system, we’re looking at getting religious leaders involved by educating them adequately and encouraging them to refer the mentally ill to the appropriate professionals for adequate treatment even while interceding for them with their chosen patriarch.
A recent article showed that the facilities available to cater for people with mental disorder are almost unavailable, a doctor that was contacted pointed out that there’s only one psychiatrist in Abuja, how does this affect your own work and how have you been able to deal with this deplorable Nigerian situation?
It’s actually quite challenging for a country with a population of almost 200 million to have only a total of about 174 psychiatrists, that a ratio of one doctor to about 800-1000 patients; and its not even geographically distributed with Lagos and Ogun State harboring most of them. Facilities are in deplorable condition with little or no maintenance over the years. There are just about 20 functional federal psychiatric hospitals in the country.
This has affected our referrals somewhat, as we have to take on a lot of responsibility due to unavailability and high cost of consultation with those available. We have begun encouraging young health professionals to look to Psychiatry as a viable residency program and become specialists in that field. It may take a while for things to come together but we’re hard at work.
What is the stance of the Nigerian government on mental health issues?
I’d dare to say the Nigerian government has no stand on Mental Health issues as our Mental Health Policy/Act has not been reviewed/revisited and revised since it was passed in 1991; but for a country in which the Health sector gets about 3-4% of the annual budget with mental health getting 0.1-0.5% of this budget, what can you infer?
For individuals, at what point does one know that his mental health may be failing?
Living under stressful conditions would always put a strain on us physically and mentally. Being able to cope with this stress is a sign that we’re functioning in optimal physical, social and mental health not just in absence of disease.
You know your mental health is failing when you’re constantly tired; unable to rest, sleep or concentrate on tasks both at home and at work; you start to withdraw from people and activities that used to give you pleasure; you’re always having mood swings; you have a poor or overactive appetite; you start to have trouble sleeping or you sleep too much; generally, when you become unable to cope with life and the stress it brings.
What sort of campaigns and awareness programs have you embarked on so far?
Every month, we run a campaign (in-line with the World Health Calendar) based on a particular mental illness or disorder.
Our launch campaign-#iammentallyaware, was however different because we had to raise general awareness on mental illnesses and the fact that they should or cured via medical means. Our #iammentallyaware campaign also focused on ending the stigma associated with mental illnesses/disorders. This campaign featured volunteer pledges from over 100 people in Nigeria and other African countries. We’ve also run campaigns on Depression-#letstalkdepression, Bipolar Disorder -#iambipolar and so on. We are currently running a campaign on Bullying and Self-harm tagged #stopbullying.
We hosted our volunteers and friends on World Mental Health Day (9th October) with our #EatOutToReachOut. It was a relaxed atmosphere with fun, food and games that gave us an opportunity to interact with volunteers and the general public and also educate them with fun tools about mental health.
In December, we partnered with the cast and crew of #Room315 and NiyiAkinmolayan.com in the production of Room 315. The movie which tells a Psychologist’s tale was produced to raise awareness on mental health and illnesses.
What have the challenges been?
Like every start-up our major challenge has been funding as we’re run on our own funds and goodwill donations from our volunteers.
Another is getting people to understand the place of religion and the place of adequate treatment has been quite a nightmare as the myths have their roots deeply sunken into the fiber of our being.
What plans does MANI have for 2017?
Our plans for 2017 include but are not limited to:
– increase efforts at creating awareness using social media as a tool
– getting partnerships with Corporate bodies
– Publishing our research/findings
– Involving youths from as many institutions as possible all over the country as they are key in educating the public and changing core values
– Start our online and offline support groups
– Hold exhibitions and talks about major mental illnesses
– Pioneer a TV Series that talks about mental health
– Host an event that centers on promoting good mental health habits at least twice every quarter.
Watch this video for further enlightenment:
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