In Nigeria, where mental health is often considered a 'Western' issue, people are turning to one another for help

Photo: Getty Images; artwork by Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle
Photo: Getty Images; artwork by Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle

In Nigeria, where I’m from, mental health is a topic still spoken about in hushed tones. Even though the country’s Federal Neuro Psychiatric Hospital estimates that 21 million Nigerians have mental health illnesses — excluding the 30 million cases that go unreported — the topic of mental health is still decidedly taboo in Nigeria. When mental health is discussed, it is often still relegated to images of stereotypes — disturbed individuals wandering the streets, soliloquizing nonsense.

For Hauwa Ojeifo, a 25-year-old investment banker turned life coach and mental health advocate, none of her symptoms mimicked these stereotypes. Ojeifo, who lives in the capital city of Lagos, recalls having constant mood swings as a child. “For as long as I can really remember, people would say, it’s just mood swings, that’s just how she is. You start to buy it,” Ojeifo tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “But things begin to happen and your body begins to react in some certain ways and you realize this is beyond how I am. It shows how powerful the brain is. It can be sick and still denying it”

As she grew older, those mood swings grew more extreme. She fluctuated between being the life of the party and enduring lows so debilitating she could barely get out of bed. “Over time the highs got higher and the lows got lower and I started to progress into suicidal thoughts,” Ojeifo remembers.

That was when she decided to seek help, and in 2015, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder.

“At that point I couldn’t even drive,” Ojeifo says, making mention of the fact that the man who assaulted her had driven a red car. “The PTSD was from multiple domestic and sexual violence incidences. Any time I saw a red car, I would lose all control. It was paralyzing my life.” Ojeifo believed her diagnosis was the source of closure she needed to get her life back on track.

Inspired by her own personal experiences and treatment success, she then founded She Writes Woman, an organization aimed at normalizing the conversation around mental health in Nigeria via social media, support groups, and a 24-hour helpline.

She Writes Woman is just one of the many small mental health support and awareness groups springing up around the city of Lagos within the past five years. So far, Ojeifo places the number of organizations like hers at 15.

Oyindamola Fakeye also runs one such small group, Sound Mind Africa, which she says is about using mindfulness as an entry point into the mental health conversation.

“I think when you live in a country that has a lot of stressors because it is a developing country, it’s going to manifest itself in terms of falling sick or feeling unhealthy mentally or physically,” Fakeye says. “That is where mindfulness comes in. I think it is an easy entry point in bringing mental health into the day to day.”

One of the many challenges faced by people dealing with mental health issues in Nigeria is that it is often labeled a “Western” problem, with sufferers cast away as attention-seeking or self-indulgent. When a country is grappling with issues of survival — like poverty, shelter, access to education, and health care — depression and anxiety are easily categorized as diseases of opulence, making it difficult to seek help and treatment.

According to the World Health Organization, Nigeria is ranked the 30th most suicide-prone of the 183 nations in the world. Though there are public health institutions offering mental health services, statistics show that only one in 50 of the 7 million Nigerians living with depression seeks treatment.

Artwork by Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle
Artwork by Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle

“Another problem we have here is language. If you are dealing with problems that are not translated, our parents don’t know how to cope with it,” Fakeye says referencing the country’s numerous commonly spoken languages. “It seems New Age because they never had to define it before. The definition is already in a foreign language and the definition is coming from a foreign land, so maybe it doesn’t relate to us, but it’s always been there.”

This was the case for a man named Olamide who started struggling with clinical depression in his third year at university. “I tried to explain to my parents, but it was particularly hard for my mother to understand because my mother would only understand something she can see,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “If it was malaria or typhoid that she can see symptoms, then she can grasp that.” With very little support and increased isolation, Olamide overdosed on his medication only to wake up in the hospital two days later. This was his second suicide attempt since his diagnosis. He says that to date his parents have not spoken about that incident. “I am open to talking about it, but we have never talked about it. I wouldn’t blame them; they probably do not know where to start.”

“A support system is super important in mental health intervention; people underestimate it,” Ojeifo emphasizes. “I believe my greatest form of healing and care has come from a support system. I had to be deliberate about it.”

A 2006 WHO report also identifies a lack of systemic data collation with regards to mental health issues in Nigeria. This, it claims, has made it difficult to identify areas of need, policy direction, or even progress.

This is why both Ojeifo and Fakeye share similar sentiments that the growing mental health support communities are integral in enriching the ecosystem and revolutionizing the way Nigerians are engaging with mental health.

For Fakeye she believes these communities are giving people a safe space and the courage to own their experience. “To be honest, shame and guilt are such hindering emotions and they hide you,” she says. “But once we say you don’t have to separate or isolate yourself. There are more and more people that are going through this; it will let people seek help earlier and hopefully allow people to have a fuller life.”

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