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Can mental illness be treated in hospital?

Tunde: Have you heard about Ade’s illness?

Bayo: No, I have not heard. Is Ade ill? What happened to him?

Tunde: He has gone mad; infact, he has been taken to Yaba Psychiatric Hospital.

Bayo: Really? That is serious. But he never showed any signs of smoking weed or taking hard drugs? What could have caused it?

Tunde: Why are you talking like this now? Don’t you know that it is a spiritual matter? They are wasting their time taking him to Yaba. They have to seek a spiritual solution to this spiritual problem. Otherwise, he will never recover.

Bayo: Hmm, people are wicked. So one has to be careful so as not to be afflicted with mental illness.

Tunde: In fact, it calls for serious prayers. Especially in Ade’s case where he had already gone to the market with his ‘madness’ before they caught him. He can never be well again.

These sort of discussions are all too common and simply reflect the widely held perceptions in our community about mental illness. But is it only those who smoke weed or take hard drugs that can suffer from mental illness? Could it be that mental illnesses are caused by spiritual attacks and they can never be cured? Are the popular movie portrayals (such as in Nollywood), which depict mental illness as untreatable conditions in hospitals that need to be referred to trado-spiritual healers, factual?

Such misconceptions largely arise from the very poor understanding of the nature of mental illness and the strangeness of it all. This is further compounded by the secrecy, shame and embarrassment that often accompanies mental health challenges, which prevents open discussions, as the problems are only discussed in hushed tones and the use of innuendoes.

In reality, our thoughts, feelings, emotions and behaviour are simply a function of certain chemicals in our brains. Thus, when we feel happy or sad; when we think about a problem and are able to arrive at a solution or make up our minds about what to do; when we want to remember something and we think hard and suddenly remember it – we are simply using our brains and certain chemicals are working hard to allow us perform these functions. Thus when there are abnormal changes in the levels of these brain chemicals, it affects the thinking processes, the feelings of happiness or sadness (emotions), memory, judgement and behaviour of the affected person.

Mental health challenges often arise from a change in the level of these brain chemicals and can be correctly identified, and treated with the help of drugs that correct the level of the abnormality and restore normal balance. Once this is restored, such individuals recover fully and can live their normal lives. However, in some cases, they will also need to continue taking their drugs in order to ensure that the levels of the affected chemicals remain normal. They will also benefit from regular clinic attendance for follow-up reviews by the psychiatrist.

This is very similar to what happens in persons with diabetes for example. Persons with diabetes are unable to tolerate or utilise glucose maximally because a chemical known as insulin is not working well or the levels are not adequate. Thus, such persons usually would need to take medications for the rest of their lives and change their diets in order to control the blood sugar. In very severe cases, they may need to be receiving daily insulin injections in order to help their body utilise glucose properly. This is in addition to going to clinic regularly for check-up and checking their blood and urine sugar levels periodically.

Thus, mental health challenges are no different from those of other chronic medical conditions such as diabetes or hypertension with respect to the fact that they are treatable with medications; but with the requirements of clinic follow-up and taking medications as may be necessary. It is therefore, a misconception that such persons cannot recover again or that they have spiritual problems without a medical solution.

Individuals with mental health challenges should be encouraged to seek evaluation by psychiatrists and to benefit from appropriate therapies (psychological as well as use of medications) in order to help them recover quickly and maintain their normal functioning in society. We should therefore show more understanding and be supportive of affected individuals. Let’s stop the silent stigmatisation and discrimination of mental health problems.