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President, sign the Mental Health Bill

With an estimated 60 million people facing one mental challenge or the other, according to statistics, Nigeria is among countries facing serious challenges relating to…

With an estimated 60 million people facing one mental challenge or the other, according to statistics, Nigeria is among countries facing serious challenges relating to mental health. In fact, statistics from the World Health Organisation (WHO) have indicated that one in every four Nigerians is suffering from a mental illness.

Various reasons are adduced for this unwholesome record. Chief among them is the current socio-economic difficulties being faced by many citizens, which has seen many Nigerians finding it difficult to make ends meet in the face of mounting responsibilities. Unemployment and low pay are the major issues being faced by many Nigerians, especially the youth. 

There is also the societal attitude towards mental health issues, which further complicates the situation. Many of those suffering from mental health challenges are often stigmatised and not given proper attention or care.   Similarly, many communities associate mental illness with spiritual problems, so the sufferers are treated locally instead of being taken to an appropriate medical facility. 

Also, Nigeria suffers from an influx of illegal drugs and substance abuse, which often leads to mental health challenges.  This is further worsened by the grossly low number of medical personnel that specialise in handling mental cases. According to Professor James Taiwo Obindo, the President of the Association of Psychiatrists in Nigeria, the country had barely between 250 and 300 psychiatrists and that in the last one year, half of that number had emigrated to either the United Kingdom or Canada. 

He said he was recently told that there were over 150 Nigerian psychiatrists who had registered to practise in Canada. “So the number of psychiatrists, psychiatrist nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists, and social workers is very low. You can imagine 0.4 psychiatrists to 100,000 Nigerians; that is about four psychiatrists to a million Nigerians,’’ he said.  He also complained of the dearth of facilities for psychiatric care as most general hospitals do not have psychiatrists in their employment, while there are only a few specialised hospitals that attend to mental health issues across the country. 

However, it is the view of Daily Trust that all these issues could largely be addressed if the president signs the Mental Health Bill which has been on his table for assent since 2021. 

Nigeria presently operates the Lunacy Act, which was first passed in 1907 and was later reviewed in 1958.  The law largely separates those who are well from those who are not well. Those who are not well are believed to be dangerous to those who are well. Therefore, they are kept in an asylum away from the so-called healthy and normal people. That kind of disposition towards those who are mentally ill stigmatises them and they are not given adequate attention. 

We must also note that not only people who obviously exhibit certain tendencies have mental issues. There are people who move about, carrying out their daily duties, yet are battling mental health issues. For this group of people, the Lunacy Act definitely cannot suffice. In any case, the word “lunacy” in the existing law is itself stigmatising and reminiscent of an outdated conception of mental health which equates it with madness.

The new bill includes taking care of those who are mentally ill and the practise itself. It is, therefore, pertinent that the president assents to the bill so that Nigeria can join the comity of nations that give adequate attention to mental health. 

Similarly, governments can further enhance the status of our mental health if they begin to implement the mental health policy that was initially passed in 2001 and reviewed in 2013. The thrust of that policy is that mental health should be situated right from the primary healthcare level. 

Citizens have a greater role to play in ensuring that issues relating to mental health are addressed right from homes. A situation where those exhibiting mental disorders are stigmatised only serves to aggravate the situation. We believe that Nigerians must do more to protect the rights of those with mental health issues by speaking out and providing the necessary assistance to those with such challenges. 

State and local governments can also help in achieving this by strengthening their social welfare departments, which are charged with handling such issues at the grassroots. Through them, people will be able to report and get assistance before the situation worsens. We also encourage non-governmental organisations to mount more enlightenment programmes to educate Nigerians on the importance of mental health and how to handle those suffering from it. 

People must be encouraged to seek help from professionals instead of the unorthodox ways often practiced. It is indeed time for a more robust approach to mental health issues.