Mental illness stigma

Humanity we all share is more important that mental illness we may not – Elyn Saks

Many Nigerians by the time they could talk would have seen one or two people suffering from mental health illness, they are not hard to find – they are in the open by the road sides. Handfuls of these are naked – devoid of any human dignity.

Reading Adebayo Adewumi’s struggle with schizophrenia is another reminder of stigma associated with mental illness in Nigeria. The 29 year old was visiting Lagos with his family, but wandered off leaving his mobile phone behind so no means of anyone getting hold of where he is.

The family is aware of his mental health status, they seem like a loving and supporting family as they give information about his treatments and relapses.

I hope somehow Adebayo is reunited with his family soon to continue with his treatment.

Here’s a video of a Professor of law at USC, USA shedding more lights into the life of people living with schizophrenia, maybe Adebayo will watch this one day to realise stigma does exist everywhere and hopefully will take advantage of listening to stories being shared from around the world to help cope with the illness better.

In this Tedtalk, Elyn Saks shares her journey with mental illness. Check out her messages to all from 12:15.


Being disabled Nigerian and a message from Maysoon Zayid

Living with any kind of disability is not the major challenge facing disabled citizens of Nigeria, it is dealing with constant reminders from people around that is most dehumanising.

We have our fair share of disabled Nigerians who are not on the road begging, these are the citizens whose disability are not only physical but also involves major neurological disorder. If they were lucky, they are home and usually the shame of the family, people used them as prayer focus/points and say something like “Please God, do not let me have a child like Emmanuel.” It doesn’t matter if Emmanuel could hear the prayers – he does not matter. The only reason Emmanuel lived to be twenty years old was because he was a very strong boy at heart and refused to give up on life.

Emmanuel developed a medical condition called Hydrocephalus  or “water on the brain” when he was about a year old. His family was devastated, they didn’t understand the condition so everyone around did what they knew best – speculate wrongly. I heard different stories about the cause of Emmanuel’s condition that I was confused. The one that stuck with me was the one that was blamed on the next door neighbour. It was said that Mama Eleja touched Emmanuel’s groin when little hence the condition developed – sounds really unbelievably ignorant but this is Nigeria where right information is very scarce. 

Emmanuel received all sorts of treatment from when he turned two all of which did not include what he needed most – medical attention to drain fluid accumulated in his head as this is preventing his brain from developing properly.

In 2003 – I got a name for Emmanuel’s medical condition while working at an institute that studies Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychology. The group did research all year-long, inviting people to participate on hundreds of studies – the work they do is really impressive. Then one day, one of the professors had a subject that bear striking physical semblance to Emmanuel – The subject went and gone. Then I went to Prof. Peter to ask questions about his subject. Peter was very generous in explaining the condition and I ended up reading all of his papers on the condition – You have to be really keen to survive reading academic papers on this subject.

With this new knowledge Emmanuel was taken to a Nigerian teaching hospital, doctors were very helpful, the water on his head was drained. However, his walking ability had been compromised before now, legs too thin to support the size of the head and growing body so needed support. He has learning difficulties and most of the problem that comes with hydrocephalus – he would have been a bit less affected if he was properly diagnosed when young. He was ten years old at the time of the surgery.

But yet I am glad we had a name for the condition so the family can find the best way to support their child.

In the last twenty years, Emmanuel’s mother and I have had major disagreements, all of which were about Emmanuel’s condition. She runs from post to pillar looking for ‘who was responsible.’ A pastor once told her the her son was Emere (a spirit child) and the poor boy was subjected to physical abuse with the hope that he would ‘confess.’ The said pastor who is seeing ‘visions from God’ dies 2 years ago due to untreated diabetes/high blood pressure – enough said.

Emmanuel’s mother is my sister, three years my senior.  Emmanuel was born during the time that I lived with her family so their challenges is close to my heart and had helped me to see Nigeria and the those guys in plastic white collars round their necks in different lights.

I wish everyone in Nigeria could watch Maysoon Zayid to learn how much we could lift one another’s spirit just by being a bit more kind towards those that have disability of all sort. I learnt from Emmanuel long ago that he did not need anyone’s pity – all he asks for is a bit more kindness.





Mrs Doubtfire and Nigerians view of depression

Walking into a new job few years ago, I was confronted with a real life Mrs Doubtfire (Not Robbin Williams). As I sat on the opposite chair listening to my new boss giving the rundown of the office culture, I nodded along to suggest my agreement with a little smile at the corner of my mouth. My head was doing something different, I tried really hard to remember where I had met my new manager before. The memory was a happy one so the more I tried to divert my thinking the more I thought of it.


Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

As I stepped away from my office later in the day, I ran into a colleague who asked me out for lunch. I shared what I was thinking about our manager that she looked very familiar but I was having trouble placing her. Jonathan looked up with bright smile on his face, giggling like a child – “Mrs Doubtfire?” he blurted “That’s it!” I agreed.

Office nickname sometimes has negative connotation but in my manager’s case it wasn’t. She bears striking physical resemblance to Mrs Doubtfire’s (Daniel Hillard) film character and the positive attitude to compensate. She was in her late fifties at the time and a mother so didn’t mind the look of a homely Scottish maid that Robbin Williams portrayed in the movie. The nickname was meant to reinforce her positiveness so she runs with it.  The office Mrs Doubtfire made everyone laugh – every tasks to her is important and always available to lend hand when needed. Hardly could anyone say no to her requests – her medicine always comes with a spoon full of sugar.

You can imagine my shock on Monday when I read about Robbin Williams’ death. Reports talk about his struggle with severe depression perhaps triggered by his expensive multiple divorces and or his alcohol and drug addiction. I could not believe that a man who dedicated his professional life to putting smiles on many faces around the world could be defeated by depression. I guess none of it matters if you are in the very low zone.

This reminds me of Dipo Ige, a 400L student at OAU campus, Nigeria who committed suicide by hanging in his room earlier this year. Lots of stories were made up about the reasons for Dipo’s suicide but the one that stood out for me was from Dipo’s mate saying he loved to keep to himself a lot – a classic symptom of a depressed person.

“He was a recluse, he keeps to himself, and he never talks to anyone. He always questioned the existence of God. He has a weird personality,” OAU Association of Campus Journalist.

“He has been nurturing such evil before now, as the rope he used had always been in his room, in fact he has been hanging it at his door post since Monday,” a lady living in Ige’s house told OAU ACJ.

In Nigeria, in most cases we see things black and white and give no room to in-betweens. More often than not most conversation is tied to religion as evidenced from Ige’s mates in the comment above. We were made to believe that if Mr A could shake off a family tragedy and moved on so should Mr B – one hat fits all mindset. We forget that we are all unique and that the way we deal with life challenges differ greatly.

Many Nigerians both young and old had words for Dipo Ige despite the fact he was already gone. Some called him selfish because he didn’t consider the pains he’d cause his parents. Some thought he killed himself because of the recent breakup with his girlfriend therefore he was a softie.

Now, what I did not read from the numerous comments that Nigerians posted online was that for someone to be at 400L at Obafemi Awolowo University today for a four-year degree, he must have started at least five years ago. School sessions were very unpredictable as the school authority goes on strike at touch of a button. Last year the students were home for six solid months because their lecturers wanted something from the government, this year they have been home for two months – always something. Each time they resumed, lectures will be rushed and exams conducted. All expected to magically cope.

Could it be that Dipo Ige was depressed because he sees no end to the challenges around him? And the fact that his questioning the existent of God made him the “uncool”among his mates and felt lonely even though he lived among the crowd? We will never know.

As a Nigerian, I know that we need to shift our thinking especially in the way that we see mental illness. Also I understand that though we may all suffer the same fate with all the troubles around us such as Ebola epidemic scare, Boko Haram #Bringbackourgirls and I dare mention residual effects of corrupt government officials etc the fact is the way we make sense of the world around us differ greatly for individuals.

Very sad to hear of Robbin William’s death – hope his family could find a bit of comfort knowing how much his humour and talent have touched lots of people around the globe – many of which he would never have met even if he lived up to 100 years.