Job Osazuwa

The life of a brilliant young man with a bright future, Olu Amamienson (not real name), was cut short in 2016 when his mental health suffered a fatal setback.

He had graduated from one of the federal universities with a first class degree in Law at the age of 22. At 25, he bagged a master’s degree in Law, also from the same university. 

But, all of a sudden, as gathered from family sources, the young man, who hailed from Edo State, began to withdraw from his relatives and close friends. Everyone felt it was not something to worry about. Some assumed that he was pursuing a doctorate, and, therefore, did not want any disturbance. 

But it became worrisome to those who were close to him when his strange behaviour lingered for weeks and months. When his mother was informed by psychiatrists that her son was suffering from a long-term depression and had degenerated into mental illness, she strongly rebutted the diagnosis.

In the quest for a solution, she abandoned orthodox medicine and yielded to the advice of friends and so took him to different traditional and religious healing/cleansing centres. While they carried out rounds of diverse rituals on him, the young man maintained that he was not sick but needed to be left alone in his world.

Sadly, Amamienson contracted an unknown infection at one of the cleansing centres. By the time the complication was discovered and he was rushed to hospital, it was already too late. He died a few days after the doctors re-stated that the scholar was only suffering from depression that could have been reversed. His death opened a floodgate of accusations, tears and tributes to a fine lawyer that the country never had.

Though Amamienson did not commit suicide, there is hardly a day that passes without a report of suicide or attempted suicide making the headlines nationwide. It has become a serious source of concern in many Nigerian homes, even as parents and guardians have been charged to be alive to their responsibility and keep a watchful eye on youths and children who might be contemplating taking their own lives.

One such incident was in July 2018, when an undergraduate of the Niger Delta University, Wilberforce Island, Bayelsa State, Aduba Daniel, reportedly committed suicide by drinking a deadly insecticide.

At the hospital, it was disclosed that he had drunk the whole bottle. Also, it was discovered that the deceased had carry-overs in four courses, which might have led him to take his own life.

Similarly, in October, 2017, a 16-year-old 100-level student of Microbiology at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Miss Mercy Afolaranmi, allegedly took her own life by drinking rat poison mixed with battery extracts. The reason given for the young lady’s suicide by sources close to her was “emotional pressure.”

Perturbed by the increasing cases of suicide in the country, especially among young people, a group of psychiatrists, psycho-therapists, nurses, psychologists, counsellors and other care givers have embarked on what they tagged “Operation Clean Nigeria of Mental Health Cases.”

As gathered, they are working round the clock to create awareness on mental illness, raise advocacy for effective mental health management system and correct myths surrounding the challenge.

The brain behind the crusade is an accomplished don and head of the Department of English, University of Lagos (UNILAG), Prof. Hope Eghagha. He said the sudden trend in young people taking their lives was one of the immediate triggers that gave birth to his campaigns on the social media, which later metamorphosed into a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called Mind and Soul Helpers Initiative (MASHI).

He said cases of depression and suicides were underreported, which he believed was one of the reasons the authorities and stakeholders were treating the challenge with levity.

The cerebral academic, who spoke passionately on what could be done to improve the mental state of Nigerians, said, having taught and interacted with thousands of students in the last 34 years, there was the need for everyone to contribute his or her quota in mitigating the plight of victims.

“We started the campaign from a Facebook group called Help a Soul Alliance (HASA) because we were troubled by the increase in the number of public suicides. We have always had suicides across the world, but in the last two years there seems to be a penchant for people taking their lives in public. 

“Take for instance, the number of people that took a plunge from the Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos. Students in UNILAG, Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Ogun State, and other universities have taken their lives by drinking the insecticide known as Sniper. 

“What really prompted me to start the campaign last year was the young lady, Pelumi Oruugbe, who had worked with a radio station, that committed suicide. I looked at her smiling face on the social media and wondered what could have made her do what she did at that early age.

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“This is a serious concern because Nigerians are said to be happy people who live in hope even in situations of hopelessness. The religious faiths give us the strong hope to move on and see the brighter days ahead. I asked myself if more young people are having depression or as a result of the adverse effects of the economy?

“So, we reached out to professionals who are now contributing their time to educate people who are having suicidal thoughts.”

Eghagha, who lamented that there was a lot of ignorance and stigmatisation about mental health, said the foundation was focused on creating awareness on depression and suicide. 

“Once someone suffers a mental health issue, many people believe that the person is mad and they will continue to see him as such. The society doesn’t want to entrust anything to him or her anymore. We need to correct that impression so that more people can come out to discuss their mental challenges.

“Sometimes, you hear people say that a mentally-challenged person who has entered a market to eat something can never be cured. Some people believe that anybody with a mental health ailment is a victim of spiritual attack. There are other groups who posit that it is the evil one commits that leads to mental health sickness. That is why many relatives take such patients to religious leaders or traditional healers for solutions. It is sad and it must not continue,” the professor said.

On what could be the cause of depression, he said that some people go through traumatic experiences such as loss of loved ones, survival from ghastly accidents, kidnapping and rape. He said other causes might be loss of jobs or people who have experienced war, violence, where their privacy or dignity have been impinged on by external forces.

“We need to seek the help of professionals because most of the challenges usually start mild and continue to deteriorate to a level that unless there is a detention of the patient in a facility the person can’t get well. It is pertinent to know that some suicides are the end stage of depression, though some cases might be spontaneous. 

“The ultimate goal of MASHI is that there should not be mentally-deranged people parading the streets of Nigeria because it is an embarrassment. People can be rehabilitated.

“Through partnerships, we shall be producing movies and making documentaries soon on mental health. Mental health is curable and the person is not doomed forever. Family support is needed in this campaign. Most times, family members live in self-denial and don’t disclose that their relative suffers mental health challenges.”

Eghagha said a visit to the Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital, Yaba, Lagos, and other facilities, would reveal that quite a large number of Nigerians have mental illnesses. 

He commended the efforts of the psychiatrists at the Yaba psychiatric hospital, saying that despite the fact that they were working under stressful conditions, they continue to render excellent services. He explained that there were inadequate facilities for the doctors and other medical workers to operate from, and many patients who were supposed to be on admission were treated as out-patients as there was insufficient space.

Eghagha said: “Apart from traumatic experiences, some people are suffering terminal or very troubling diseases. They, therefore, come down with depression. There are some students who have depression and cannot cope with their studies, having failed many times. There are those who just break down while writing exams due to stress and inability to cope with the environment. 

“There was the case of a particular medical doctor who was under pressure at his workplace. When he realised that he was under so much pressure, he resigned to start his own hospital. It took him time to set it up and he succeeded. But the day he launched the facility, he broke down mentally as a result of the tension and stress. He was quickly attended to by experts. In such a case, some local people would have said it was the doctor’s enemies who were monitoring him and were against his progress.

“One of the things we tell people during counselling is that it is okay not to be okay, which means there is no big deal if you suffer depression. If you can’t sleep well, you can’t perform well during the day; you hear voices and withdraw from everybody for a long time, you need to seek help. A few weeks or months of treatment or mere counselling could just be a lifetime solution the person needs. But many people will continue to go to the wrong sources. 

“We need partnerships from the telecommunication providers to give us toll-free help lines that will be dedicated to Nigerians who are depressed and need to speak to some professionals. We also need financial sponsorship. It must not be physical cash. For example, people could sponsor a movie or documentary that will be translated into different local languages and dialects. We need someone to help us train caregivers who are the first responders.

“We want people who will help donate or subsidise drugs for patients, because the drugs are very expensive. Part of what has been helping the African society is the family support. But today, that bond that once existed is fast being eroded.”

He called on government at all levels to address the economic suffering, shortage of medical personnel and inadequate facilities. He also demanded proper activation of a mental health policy in the country.

Eghagha kicked against the jail term for anyone who attempts suicide. He urged government to rather tackle the foundational factors that lead to such thoughts.