How mindful are you about your mental health?

I once had a neighbour many years ago who exhibited symptoms of schizophrenia. She showed clear signs of delusion, hallucination, disorganized speech, neologism, among others. Joy (not real name) was a very beautiful, vibrant young lady in her late twenties. I noticed that sometimes her communication swayed, she deviated with no visible point in the horizon. For instance, we might be having a discussion about the weather and without any link to the conversation on ground, she would begin to explain that the president was her husband and got her a brand new car. Our initial reaction to these signs was to rule them out as comic relief, so we laughed them off as a joke because it was visible she did not have a car nor did she have an intimate relationship with the president of the country. We commonised these series of events because of our poor mental health awareness and lack of mental health education, and largely because she appeared well physically. A bruise in the body is easy to see and treat but the mind hides dozens of bruises daily undetected.

This went on for many years before any of us picked up on the fact that something was wrong. The eye opener and life-changing moment for me happened on a cold rainy day in September. The torrential September rain had forced traders and children on the street to retire indoors earlier than usual. Our forced retreat was soon turned to despair when Joy ran into the compound frantic and covered in mud screaming for help.

“Help me, help me….they want to kill me. Please don’t let them kill me, please,” she kept screaming.

Neighbours ran out to see what the problem was – some with cutlasses, others with any object they could lay hands on in a bid to rescue Joy from her assailants.

“What is the matter?” inquired one neighbour, a brawny young man from next door nicknamed ‘Egbe Wedgger’, loosely meaning a person who is always ready for a fight. Joy kept screaming. Egbe Wedgger ran impatiently to the next bus stop in search of Joy’s assailant, but ran back panting and disappointed.

By then a small crowd had gathered in the compound trying to help figure out what was going on. Joy began to mumble incoherently, then took cover behind one neighbour while pointing at another as her assailant. Everybody was aghast at her behaviour but tried to calm her down. It became evident Joy wasn’t as well as we all thought.

Unfortunately for Joy, things went downhill from there; she began to isolate herself and grew further into her shell. A few friends and neighbours were concerned and tried to help but the major consensus about her condition was that it was a spiritual problem. Different causes were postulated; some said her enemies were out to get her and ruin her life, others said they were certain she had been a part of an evil scheme to harm someone and now karma was out to get her. They took her for “deliverance” and made a series of sacrifices all to no avail. The last time I saw Joy she was tied up in a secluded area in her house. It was a dehumanizing and pitiful sight. Joy never got through to getting the help she needed or even medical diagnosis.

The story of Joy happened many years ago when I was still a teenager, but sadly, not much has changed in the subject of mental health. Till today, mental health is still not a popular or easy topic to discuss and, like Joy, many people live with mental health issues without knowing it. A lot of people are at the tipping point to depression and risk of other mental health ailments but they go about their day to day activities completely unaware.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in every four Nigerians has some degree of mental illness. Globally, many people who experience mental illness are reluctant to seek help because of the stigma associated with it. Stigmatization is the pitfall, the main obstacle of mental health and overall well-being. Majority of people are afraid of being labelled ‘mad’ or worse by the society, so they choose the bliss of ignorance rather than a wholesome well-being of body, mind and soul.

What is mental health?

According to WHO, mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community. Mental health is more than the absence of mental disorder; it is determined by a range of socio-economic, biological and environmental factors. Mental health is an integral and essential component of health.

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“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity,” the WHO constitution states. From this definition, it is deducible that mental health is a fundamental part of health. Indeed, there is no health without mental health. Mental health is essential to our overall individual ability as humans to think, emote, interact with each other, earn a living and enjoy life. On this basis the promotion, protection and restoration of mental health can be regarded as a vital concern of individuals, communities and societies throughout the world.

As important as mental health is to the effective running of our daily affairs, a lot of people treat the subject with negligence. Efforts have been made to educate and sensitize the public but the majority still lives in ignorance. A few others are deterred from getting help because of financial constraints. The cost of treating mental illnesses is high and then, there is the fear of being stigmatized.

Dr Trever Simon Chieshi is one of the success stories in Nigeria, according to a WHO online publication dated 11 October 2022. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1990. His diagnosis led to a couple of lifestyle adjustments and he had to suspend school for a year. Since his diagnosis, Dr Chieshi has learnt to live with the challenge. He now works as the chief medical officer at a health centre in Benue State. He used his experience to help other people diagnosed with mental health issues.

When asked about the stigma attached to mental illness, Dr Chieshi lamented about the way people treat those with health issues. He said people treat those with mental issues as if they are mad.

“We are not, and they need to understand that we only see things differently from others. It’s something to share with society. So many others are suffering from what I think is not a necessarily correct diagnosis but a stigma attached.

“The stigma attached to the illness pushes them to the level where they ignore their craft,” Dr Chieshi said.

Dr Chieshi is a proof that mental illness is not a life-sentence of ever-worsening symptoms and recurrent hospitalization. With the right treatment and self-help, many people with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses are able to regain normal functioning and even become symptom-free.

Mental health wellness

Speaking on the importance of mental health wellness, a psychiatrist, Prof Taiwo Obindo, said, “With the right treatment and support, people suffering from mental health issues such as schizophrenia can recover. People diagnosed with mental health issues should not be ostracized and those having mental health problems should shout out and seek help.”

Indeed, mental health services are available and can help better the lives of people. WHO Representative, Dr Kazadi Walter Mulombo, said the organisation is committed to supporting the government of Nigeria and its partners to put in place necessary strategies and frameworks towards the prevention and control of mental health disorders in Nigeria.

Many people live with mental health illnesses around us. Do not stigmatize these people. It is important we encourage them to seek medical help and that we are conscious of our mental health as well. It is important we make mental health for all a global priority. Everyone needs to become concerned and deliberate about their mental health as well as people living with mental health issues. Mental well-being contributes to the overall well-being of body, mind and soul. It is important we care for our mental health as we do our physical health.