Psychiatrists in Nigeria have raised the alarm on the rising cases of mental health challenge in the country and called for urgent action to halt the ugly development. In their estimation, one in four Nigerians, that is over 50 million Nigerians, are suffering from one mental illness or the other. This was disclosed by the psychiatrists as part of the activities to mark the 2022 World Mental Health Day (WMHD). The WMHD is commemorated annually on October 10 to raise awareness about mental health around the world and mobilise efforts to support those with mental health issues.

The day also provides an opportunity for mental health professionals and other stakeholders to discuss and prioritise mental health issues globally. According to them, about 75 per cent of those who need mental health care do not have access to it, as Nigeria has only 300 psychiatrists to treat about 200 million people. Available information shows that there is one psychiatrist for every 500,000 inhabitants in Africa, which is 100 times less than the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommendation. Not less than 11 people per 100,000 die yearly by suicide in Africa. This is higher than the global average of nine per 100,000 people.

WMHD was first celebrated in 1992 at the initiative of the World Federation for Mental Health (WFMH), a global mental health organisation with members and contacts in more than 150 countries. Every year since 2013, the World health Organisation (WHO) has organised a global campaign for WMHD. This year’s WMHD was marked with the theme: “Make Mental Health and Wellbeing for All a Global Priority.” According to WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the theme serves as a reminder that, after nearly three years, the social isolation, fear of disease and death, and strained socio-economic circumstances associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have contributed to 25 per cent global rise in depression and anxiety.

In Africa, over 116 million people were living with mental health conditions pre-pandemic. Suicidal rates remain high, while there are exponential rates in alcohol use and abuse among adolescents of 13 years of age. In Nigeria, alcohol and drug abuse among the youths is said to be very high. It is distressing that over 50 million Nigerians are mentally ill, while 75 per cent of those who need mental health care lack access. That may even be a conservative estimate, considering the views of the experts that mental illness is not only synonymous with those walking around naked but includes many people who appear normal but are suffering from one form of mental disorder or another.  Generally, mental illnesses include anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders, disruptive behaviour and dissocial disorders and neurodevelopmental disorders.

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Mental health problems arise from a wide range of causes. They can stem from such factors as childhood abuse, trauma, neglect, social isolation or loneliness, discrimination and stigma, including racism-related social disadvantage, poverty or debt. Other social conditions as domestic violence, bullying, drug abuse and being victims of violent crime can cause mental disorders. Also, loss of close relation, severe or long-term stress having a long-term physical health condition, are equally causative factors.  Poverty and unemployment are major contributors to mental health imbalance in Nigeria. The present unemployment rate in the country put at 33 per cent can lead to anxiety and mood swings. One of the consequences is the rising cases of depression and suicide in the country.

The government must address the disturbing rising cases of mental health. Government should tackle the challenge of inadequate health infrastructure. It is discouraging that out of 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Nigeria has only nine federally owned psychiatric hospitals, with six of them located in the six geo-political zones. With over 60 per cent of Nigerians living in the rural areas, they do not have access to appropriate care and have to travel long distances to access health facilities. Let government establish more mental health facilities across the country to enable many Nigerians with mental health challenges access treatment with ease. Alternatively, primary health care centres can be equipped and encouraged to treat basic mental health problems.

Efforts should be made to increase the number of psychiatrists in the country. Having about 300 psychiatrists to attend to a population of over 200 million people is grossly inadequate. There is also scarcity of psychiatric nurses, social workers and occupational therapists.  There are fears that some of these experts might have migrated to other countries in search of greener pastures. It is obvious that Nigeria needs more psychiatrists to address the increasing cases of those down with mental illnesses. Let the government initiate good health policies and improve the working conditions of doctors and other health workers.

Above all, we call for adequate nationwide enlightenment campaign on mental health, causative factors, preventive measures and treatment options. Nigerians must do away with stigmatisation, which is a major challenge in accessing mental healthcare.