On November 11, the Human Rights Watch published a mental health report, from an on-the-ground investigation that began in August 2018. The report focuses on the gross dehumanization of mental health patients in both state and religious institutions, catered to “rehabilitating”, “curing” and in some cases “delivering” patients from their mental illness.
In this intensely worrying report, HRW also investigated the various ways in which stigma, religious beliefs, miseducation and a failed medical structure still ensure that mentally ill Nigerians without access to healthcare or informed relatives, continue to be subjected to the most inconducive ways of living in a bid to find healing.
From chaining patients for long days at a time, to depriving them of food, to forcing them to fast, which often attract punishment when they refuse to. Patients were also reported to have experienced and still experience various forms of physical abuse, isolation, maltreatment from medical officials, all on the existing stigma they have to live with each day.
While some of these centres and facilities have been shut at the notice of this report, what this study tells us is that Nigeria isn’t ready yet to deal with its mental health problem. Perhaps because mental health illnesses still aren’t seen as the potentially dangerous and destabilizing yet unchecked medical crisis that they really are.
This sentiment can be spotted in the most mundane ways we approach the subject. There’s the minimal recognition and lack of incorporation of the subject in most Nigerian workspaces, so as to help raise awareness. The palpable social misunderstanding and ignorance of what causes certain mental illnesses and what can be done to help mentally ill persons. There’s also, prominently, the language of shame and dismissal we’ve wrapped the reality of mental health in.
Back in October, a journalistic-essay by writer Socrates Mbamalu published in Aljazeera, spotlighted the country’s deep-rooted problem with mental illness and the yet to be addressed constraints that has stopped any reformative actions to take place.
Despite the level of awareness and advocacy, championed mostly by NGOs with little or no government support or intervention, there are very little ways in which mentally ill persons are assured of safety, of not getting isolated, illegally detained or taken advantage of depending on the location.
The widening space the government should be filling, has been overtaken largely by clueless religious institutions, who address these illnesses through vile and impractical means. In the conversation around mental illnesses, there seems to be a lot of emphases laid on the glossier-looking kind of mental illness, or most prevalently the rising rates of suicide, which would be fine if people at the lower spectrum of this illnesses are also added to the conversation.
The HRW reports that these institutions who detain these people without their consent, are able to as it is in line with Nigeria’s 1958 mental health act and that these people have been detained, isolated and badly treated for long periods of time without any allocated period of release.
What does it say about us in light of these recurrent instances of inhumanity? What does it say that our country has continued to thrive on the complete disregard and neglect of human life? What does it say about our social culture of ripping away people’s personal dignity? What does it say about us as a people in the ways we’ve allowed religion and unfounded sentiments enable us to mete out unjust treatments on our fellow human beings?
If the Nigerian government intends to tackle our health issues, there ought to be strong plans to not only re-educate people about mental illness, but to properly treat it through proven scientific methods while amplifying the ineffectiveness of religious institutions administering treatments on people with mental illness. It is not enough to talk about it, something has to start happening soon. And it is worth mentioning that whatever is set to help afford mentally ill persons the care and medical security they deserve, it should be done with their dignity and sense of person intact.