Ignorance, stigma and mental illness

Case 1

Tunde is eight years old and was in Primary 3 at the neighbourhood primary school. He was a very cheerful and happy child but has recently become withdrawn and moody, after his parents were compelled to withdraw him from school to sit at home. He now spends his day in his mother’s kiosk where she sells petty items. He stares at other children in their school uniforms as they go to and from school every day while he has nothing to do. His mother once caught him crying quietly at the back of the shop, and she tried her best to console him but she also ended up crying with him.

She understood why he was unhappy. Her heart is also heavy, but what else could she do? Tunde started having fits since the age of three years and he has fits at least once every week. Unfortunately, it usually happens during the daytime when he is away at school. The teachers and other parents kept on complaining as they did not want their own children to be affected by his epilepsy. Afterall, everyone knew that if the saliva of someone having a fit touches your body, you will also develop the condition. When the pressure became too much for his parents to bear, they moved him to another school, but the same cycle repeated itself. Indeed, the bullying and jests were even more pronounced in the second school. At their wits end, his parents reluctantly withdrew him from school and he is now at home.

 

Case 2

Bose is a brilliant and beautiful young lawyer who graduated with a first class from the prestigious University of Ibadan. She proceeded to Law School and aced the examinations. She was happily looking forward to marrying her best friend all through the university and her soul mate, Ayo, who graduated two years ahead of her and was already working as an engineer with a telecommunications company.

Things soon went awry however, when Ayo came visiting and informed her that his parents were adamant that they cannot get married. Somehow, they (Ayo’s parents) had done some investigations and discovered that Bose had an episode of depression in her 200 level, on account of which she was admitted in a Psychiatric Ward in UCH. They were adamant that their son would not marry someone with a history of mental illness. Ayo has been trying his best to explain to them that her episode of depression occurred in the aftermath of her younger brother’s tragic death in a motor accident. She was devastated and went into a severe depression. But she was treated promptly, recovered and has been fine ever since. But his parents were having none of that. As far as they were concerned, Bose is unfit for their son. Ayo’s father has threatened to disown him if he does not stop seeing Bose. Ayo is now contemplating disobeying his parents for the first time in his life, and risk becoming estranged from them. Or should he break off the relationship with Bose and hope that somehow, they will both find someone else? He had tried his best to shield Bose from all these issues, but now decided to discuss it with her. Bose started crying inconsolably, and Ayo wrapped his arms around her shoulders, in a bid to comfort her. He resolved to go against his parents this one time….in the hope that they would eventually come around and accept her. ‘Stop crying Bose’, he said. ‘Nothing will separate us and I will never leave you.’

 

Post-script

Mental health challenges are common and one in every 10 Nigerians may have one form of mental illness or the other. That translates to about 17 million Nigerians, or the entire population of three to four states. Epilepsy is not contagious and is very treatable. Same for all forms of mental illnesses. They can be treated and go on to live normal lives without problems.

People with mental health problems frequently say that the social stigma, rejection and discrimination they experience is what makes their lives far more difficult than the illness itself. Thus, recovery is very tough, when people start avoiding you or treating you differently on account of your mental health challenges. These problems come from families, friends, and employers or colleagues at work.

Stigma and discrimination also prevents many people from coming forward and accessing treatment, on account of shame and embarrassment. Thus, they become socially isolated, or their families hide them away and lock them up somewhere. So, stigma and discrimination can trap people in a vicious cycle. We need to address this ignorance. Will you play your part?

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