If you live in Nigeria, you’ve definitely seen several mentally ill people on the streets. You typically see more of them in rural areas. They, like us, need to be kept safe and valued as human beings as much as other people do. Yet, the government doesn’t pay them any mind. Many of them roam the streets till they die. They are the external symptoms of a selfish government, one that disregards its mentally ill people.
Hospitals or Decorated Asylums? Public Psychiatric Care in Nigeria
In Nigeria, a country of over 200 million people, there are only about 250 psychiatrists. Just about three hundred. And that’s it? What’s worse, those left are planning on leaving the country.
Due to brain drain, many doctors in many federal-owned psychiatric hospitals have abandoned their positions in search of better pay and working conditions abroad. Honestly, can you blame them? In federal psychiatric hospitals, the doctors have to attend to hundreds of patients per day, sometimes only spending a few seconds with each patient.
In Nigeria, it is legal to chain down a person with real or perceived mental illnesses. President Muhammadu Buhari did say at one point that he was against those acts of torture, but he never mentions how that same torture occurs in government-owned institutions. He never shuts any of these torture buildings down. He never revisits the constitution that permits this to be legal in the first place.
There are only 8 federal-owned neuropsychiatric hospitals in Nigeria. In addition to those, there are 5 state-owned neuropsychiatric hospitals. Community mental health care in Nigeria is nonexistent.
According to the World Health Organization, a previous suicide attempt is the top risk factor for suicide. However, if a person survives a suicide attempt in Nigeria, the person is not closely monitored by health care officials. No therapy paid for or otherwise is offered to the victim. Unless, of course, they are wealthy. This amount of nefarious neglect reeks of cruelty and even malice. In my opinion, it’s on the same level as second-degree murder.
The Origin: The 1958 Lunacy Act
You are probably wondering why Nigeria is so backwards when it comes to mental health. Sure, Nigeria is a developing country, but that doesn’t excuse the strangely static nature of her mental healthcare system. There has been very little improvement since the pre-independence era, which is surprising, even for a country like Nigeria.
To understand how Nigeria got to this point, we have to look at the origin of the problem. To do that, we don’t need to look any further than the 1958 Lunacy Act. This Act, still valid in the Nigerian constitution, is the only mental health act available in Nigerian law. When I tell you it is horrific, I am not mincing words. It calls mentally ill people “idiots” and “lunatics” and doesn’t mention treatment.
While the World Health Organization links suicide to crisis or mental distress, the Nigerian government criminalizes it. In Nigeria, attempting suicide can earn you up to one year in prison. Though that particular law is not usually implemented, it’s shocking that it’s still part of the constitution.
Nobody to Call: Nigeria’s Suicide Hotlines
Unlike the fairly popular American suicide hotline, many people do not know the Nigerian suicide hotlines. Many don’t even know Nigeria has suicide hotlines. They are very forgettable, markedly unlike America’s easy-to-remember hotline –1-800-SUICIDE. There is almost no significant publicity or advertising of the hotline. You can find the Nigerian hotline only when you look them up on Google.
I took it upon myself to call each hotline listed on the open counseling website, the only website I could find the hotlines. I wasn’t able to connect with anyone. It was either the lines were switched off, or no one picked up the calls.
This is a disappointment, to say the least. It is not immensely difficult for a government to put a working hotline in place for people with suicidal ideation. It is the first step in a good emergency response for suicide, and it’s being neglected.
Suicide Sleeps Undisturbed Among Nigerian Citizens
There’s indeed a lack of education on mental health issues in Nigeria. I, however, don’t think that’s the main reason for the rising suicide rates. We can educate as many Nigerians as possible on mental health issues, but if there’s no system to direct people to, how will they get help? Why won’t a suicide attempt survivor try it again if they couldn’t gain access to professional help that first time? There’s only so much pep talks can do.
Many people in Nigeria self-harm, binge-eat, abuse drugs to cope with emotional issues they can’t work through on their own. We do “Say No to Drugs” campaigns, yet we ignore that the real issue sometimes is unmanaged mental illness. We ignore it because we know there isn’t much we can do. So, praying that it suffices, we offer words of encouragement instead, like a band-aid over a gunshot wound.
Nigeria is the 15th country globally in terms of suicide rates. It’s now so widespread that I’m sure you’ve heard of someone or even known someone that drank Sniper. And what has Nigeria done to curb this? It bans Sniper. It puts paper over the deep cracks in the system and says, “There. That’s fixed now.” People aren’t committing suicide because they have access to deadly pesticides. They’re killing themselves because they’re mentally distressed.
Almost every academic year at Obafemi Awolowo University, students attempt suicide. Yet, there’s no easily accessible, well-known mental health care system in place for students.
I think the othering of mentally ill people is the main reason the government finds it so easy to ignore them. The government already deems them an outcast and doesn’t necessarily feel obligated to take care of them.
But they forget that directing a gun at someone while imagining an object in their place as you pull the trigger doesn’t make you any less of a murderer.