The Complexities of Living With Mental Health Illnesses In Nigeria

Al-Jazeera places the mental health illness crisis in Nigeria at a staggering rate of one in four persons. Yet, the topic still holds so much stigma in the country. Here, mental health and wellbeing remain unimportant and unattended despite the prevalence of mental health illnesses. Hence, living in a country with such a hostile climate in that aspect is certainly far from a walk in the park. So, to commemorate Mental Health Awareness Week this year, B.Side spoke to Bola, a writer and law student diagnosed with bipolar, anxiety and borderline personality disorders, on the hassle of existing with illnesses like hers in Nigeria.

In recent times, conversations about mental health have intensified in society to dispel myths and eliminate the topic’s stigma. Despite this, cultural and religious beliefs remain pervasive, creating an environment that makes it difficult for people struggling with these problems to speak about them or ask for help. But avoiding or ignoring a problem does not make it go away. Instead, it lets it fester and becomes harder to tackle. This is especially true in Nigeria as the oft-ignored issue of mental healthcare has deteriorated into a worrisome state. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Nigeria has the highest caseload of depression in Africa and is ranked 15th globally for suicide occurrences.


The causes of depression and other mental health problems are primarily universal: academic pressure, financial difficulties, losing a loved one in addition to genetic, biochemical and hormonal reasons. The manner of approach to these issues is the crucial difference between Nigeria and other countries. Here, mental health and wellbeing remain unimportant and unattended despite the prevalence of mental health illnesses. According to a report by Al Jazeera, one in four Nigerians suffers from a mental health illness. However, these numbers have been challenged, with Africa Check claiming the figure is actually around one-in-eight. Whatever the actual number is, one thing is clear: Nigeria has a mental health crisis, and ignoring and stigmatising will not make it go away. To cope with these problems while hiding them, several people turn to self-medication, using alcohol, weed and other mind-altering substances to numb the psychological pain and torture. This, however, only leads to more problems such as addiction and death from overdoses.


The first step to removing the stigma around mental health issues is to normalise talking about them. Raising awareness about them and educating members of society about what they are to forgo harmful stereotypes that have contributed to the status quo. More importantly, removing stigma helps people struggling with these illnesses to seek help from proper places and channels, reducing the harm caused by self-medication.


For Mental Health Awareness Week 2021, B.Side sat down with Bola, a writer and law student diagnosed with bipolar, anxiety and borderline personality disorders in 2017, to discuss the complexities of living with mental health illnesses in Nigeria.


B.Side Mag: Hello Bola, thanks for talking to us. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and getting diagnosed?


Bola: I was hallucinating and experiencing paranoia. I was very depressed and suicidal, self-harming a lot, too. There were so many things that were wrong with me. One day, I was feeling down, so I texted MANI (Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative), and they urged me to get to the hospital. I texted a friend to meet me there (the hospital), and we called my dad, who was alarmed and started shouting because I was at a psychiatric hospital. Anyways, I did personality tests, answered a lot of questions.


At first, I was misdiagnosed with major depression and was placed on the wrong drugs and treatment. I wasn’t comfortable, so I did personal research and figured out what exactly was wrong with me. I told my doctor how I was feeling, and he was very sceptical, based on the results of the first diagnosis, but I continued to pressure him, and after a while, they reassessed me. I redid the tests, did the DSM-4 test, and they put me on the right drugs.


Did you feel relieved when you got a diagnosis because it explained a lot of things? Or were you just sad? Or were you scared?


I felt a lot of things. Relieved, yes, because I knew what was wrong with me. But I also felt sad because technically, I was medically insane, and everybody was going to know that and judge me through that lens. Also, realising I was going to be on medication for the rest of my life. I feel tired of everything, too, because dealing with all of these things is tiring. But all in all, I feel relieved because I know what I have to do to feel better; medication, therapy, all of that.


How does it feel living with a mental health illness in Nigeria, where there are still many stigmas attached to mental health issues?


Um, the stigma is one of the things that hurt me about the illness. When I first got diagnosed, I had a relapse, so I was in the hospital for a while. When I came out, people kept talking about me, and everyone treated me differently, like I wasn’t okay. I just wanted to be normal, but they had all decided that I wasn’t. Over the years, I have come to terms with it, but it doesn’t have to be that way; I shouldn’t have to get used to stigma. It’s so difficult because I can’t even talk about it to people, so they don’t change their attitudes towards me. It shouldn’t have to be that way- I mean, it’s the same thing as a person with cancer; it’s just something that I have to deal with, not something that defines me.

External opinions and stigma aside, how does it affect your day-to-day life?


Well, there are some days I am probably “useless” because I am hallucinating or some days where I can’t get out of bed because my brain just refuses to cooperate with me. Also, the drugs have side effects; they make me feel dizzy and sleepy. Sometimes, it’s like, how can I even function if I’m on these drugs and feeling like a robot?


What about school? Your career?


So, I had to stop school for two-and-a-half years because I was in and out of the hospital a lot due to relapses. I should be done with uni now, but instead, I am behind. And I like to think that it doesn’t hurt me, but it does, you know? Like, my illness has tampered with my growth and progress in life. As for my career, my writing has dived as well. Yeah, it has affected everything.


Are there any silver linings? Despite the difficulties, are there things that still spark joy?


Yeah. I am so grateful for the support of my friends and family. At the hospital, my doctor and pharmacist have helped me so much. I am grateful for the support system I have because it’s not easy dealing with all of these things. Sometimes, I feel being bipolar is a superpower, you know, because being able to switch and feel things so deeply and passionately can be cool. But mostly, my support system makes me feel safe and enough, and that’s what I like; that’s what I need. My therapist, too, I don’t know what I would have done without her. It feels so good knowing there’s someone who listens and understands me without judging me. Shout out to my therapist.


It's Mental Health Awareness Week. What do you think can be done to reduce the stigma around mental health issues and improve awareness in Nigeria?


We need proper education, primarily. We need to let people know that it’s not a big deal, man. Mental health illnesses are just like any other illnesses, and anybody could have it: your dad, your mum; brother, cousin, sister; and any person close to you. But the truth is you don’t even need to have a close relationship with someone to have empathy and understanding for mentally ill people.


Finally, do you have any advice for people who are scared to get diagnosed or people struggling with these issues?


For those scared to get diagnosed, I understand, but it’s still essential. The first step to finding a balance or getting a hold of your life is getting a diagnosis to know exactly what the problem is and how you can solve it. For people in Lagos, you can always go to the Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital in Yaba, and it’s pretty affordable.


I know it’s cliche to say that there’s light at the end of the tunnel for those struggling with mental health problems. But, take it a day at a time, and if a day is too overwhelming, take it an hour at a time. If you can’t do that, then a minute or second at a time. It’s hard, I know, but you can do this. You can be someone despite what you’re going through. It doesn’t have to define you or determine what you end up in life. You can do whatever despite the odds, so beat them.


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