Àrùn Ọpọlọ

At innocent age of 10 (if not earlier) in Nigeria, most children would easily say boldly that the ‘madman’ down the road offended some witches in the village hence he has ‘turned’ crazy or that the half naked lady with mental health issue is so because she jilted her boyfriend so he casts ‘crazy’ spell on her (this one gets the ladies every single time so they stay in abusive relationship for the fear of spell).

Of all the reasons people give to avoid understanding mental health issues, the above I believe are parts of the major contributing factors that prevented us from showing a bit of interest towards understanding mental health issues.

I enjoyed this piece by John Green, the author of the The Fault In Our StarsThe quote below sums up what I have learnt from observing my nephew living with bipolar. 

“The metaphors we most often employ when discussing disease—that it is an enemy to defeat, or a hurdle to jump and put behind us—don’t really apply to chronic illness. Instead, you live with it. You get better. You get worse. You get better again.” John Green

Mental health issue is something I grow up learning to pray against that ‘God, may I not have mental health problem in my life’ ‘Ọlọrun, ma je k’ori mi daru l’aye mi’ 

My understanding of mental health problem used to be that of an illness that can be wished or cast upon someone, at the same token can be wished or cast away.

In the 80’s there used to be a man probably in his 40’s lived at a burial ground in Mayfair, Ife. The burial ground is adjacent to the road that leads to Universal Tutorial College (now university I heard). His name was Lati. Everyone knew him as Lati Were (Lati the crazy one). He is usually clothed but can be quite aggressive. He had dàda (dreads) on his head due to years of untouched locks so the hair was just matted.

His preferred route was walking from Mayfair all the way to Teaching Hospital then back. There are hundreds of shops on both sides of the road even at that time – Mayfair, Idiọmọ, Lagere, Ọja tuntun, Sabo, then teaching hospital; all these spots were areas where Lati begged for food or snatched if he so wishes.

There are a couple of long term mental health sufferers in town, Lati was one, then Eli Were (Elizabeth the crazy). Eli’s case was eye-opening. People called her Were yet she is pregnant almost every year and the child taken away from her immediately after birth, this is the time she is most upset and would cry down Alapata and Akarabata roads for weeks on end – cruel, cruel world we live in.

I only started thinking something is odd with the way we define mental health problem in Nigeria shortly after I left home. And since then it is just hard to take anyone who believes people who suffer from mental health illness deserves to live on the road seriously on any subject.

To come back to Lati Were. One day in the mid 90’s, there were talk in town that his family came from out of town, brought nice clothes (they must have been watching him to know his calm days.) They whizzed him away.

People were happy for Lati Were. Now thinking about it, I really do hope he responded to treatment and now living a full life.

With technology we learn more about different mental health spectrum: Bipolar, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder etc – all of these are often lumped up together in Nigeria. Even someone with depression can easily be pushed out of the house to be dropped on the streets of a big city where she would not bring shame to the family.

Like most things it will be hard to change everyone’s views on mental health illness at the same time but at least those who can read can learn that Nigeria is not isolated – that mental health illness cuts across race and class – so we can learn more about how best to relate to family, friend or the man on the road in the way that would not add to the challenges they are already facing.

In southwest, I heard UCH Ibadan has the best Psychiatric ward for both adults and children – even directing folks here is one way of helping humanity.