Maintaining mental health during economic downturn

Vera Onana writes on the impact of recession on the mental health of Nigerians and how it can be combated.

About a month ago, Nigeria’s Finance Minister, Kemi Adeosun, while addressing the senate stated that the country is technically in recession. Before this declaration however, it is an open secret that majority of Nigerians have been literally living from hand to mouth, finding it really hard to meet their varying financial obligations.

The Nigerian economy in recent times has gone from bad to worse and this is indicated in the increased rate of inflation as prices of goods and commodities continually sky rocket. Also, many Nigerians in the past few months have lost their jobs as a result of downsizing and retrenchments to keep companies afloat, resulting into an increase in the rate of unemployment in the country.


Relationship between recession and mental health

Consultant Psychiatrist and Head of Clinical Services at Synapse Services, Lagos Branch, Dr Otefe Edebi, while establishing a relationship between the economic recession and mental health of Nigerians stated that the recession has led to threats and realities of losing jobs while also lowering purchasing capacity of several Nigerians.

“Threat and loss events have been established to be associated with anxiety and depression respectively. Periods of recession have also been associated with increase in alcohol and drug abuse in order to cope with the stress. Sometimes such periods have been associated with increased rates of suicide.”

Edebi added that what Nigerians are experiencing today is actually an escalation of an already existing situation. “The reduction in purchasing capacity for many can lead to a feeling of hopelessness, helplessness and their antecedent psychological consequences.”

The Psychiatrist also explained that mental illnesses are generally not restricted to any group of persons based on gender, age, race or social status. However, researches have shown that some people may be at higher risk of mental disorders due to unfavourable social, environmental and economic circumstances, like what obtains in Nigeria as this recession thickens.


Nigeria may be at the brink of increased cases of mental illness

Another mental health expert, Senior Lecturer, Consultant Psychiatrist and Clinical Psychologist at the Department of Mental Health, Obafemi Awolowo University/Teaching Hospitals Complex, Dr Boladale Mapayi, also declared that based on the current recession, the nation may be at a brink of an increase in cases of mental illnesses, instability and suicide.

“If there is an increase in stressors associated with mental disorders, then more vulnerable people will fall ill and more people living with mental illnesses will function less adequately. Unfortunately, we might not have evidence to document this increase because our record keeping system is inadequate,” she said.

Mapayi stated that unfortunately in Nigeria, the law still maintains within it attempted suicide as a crime that is punishable by imprisonment, hence, the abysmal record for suicide.

While linking cases of mental disorders to the current state of the economy, the psychiatrist said: “There is a definite relationship between economic recession and people’s mental health and this finding is supported by global literature but the relationship is more indirect.”

“According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), poverty is the leading factor associated with ill health (including mental health). Poverty goes hand in hand with unemployment/underemployment, harsh living conditions, hopelessness, increased stress levels which inadvertently leads some people to increased use of psychoactive substances as a maladaptive coping mechanism and an increase in violence. All these factors will lead to an increase in the prevalence of mental disorders, especially depression, suicidal behaviour and psychoactive substance abuse,” she emphasised.

However, Mapayi noted that though inflation and retrenchment have since escalated, there may not be available statistics to indicate a relative upsurge of cases of mental illness in the country. “As noted earlier, our record keeping system is still very inadequate to capture any difference.

We must also remember that about 70 per cent of people living with mental illnesses in Nigeria do not receive evidence-based care because of the stigma associated with these disorders, also because of preconceived cultural and religious notions of the cause of mental disorders. So, getting a base line assessment of prevailing burden is difficult enough and the difference by projection is much more so.”

She added however that preliminary studies indicate that suicidal behaviour is prevalent in Nigeria, even much so among the young and is likely to get worse given the prevailing situation.


Experts advise on tackling recession-induced mental illnesses 

On combating recession induced mental illnesses and for Nigerians to keep sane under the difficult economic realities, Edebi, who lauded the ability of Nigerians to find humour in almost every situation, declared suggested that people should become more aware of their personal stressors and learn to address them in healthier ways.

He urged Nigerians to get better informed about emotional health and see a professional if the need arises.

Mapayi encouraged individuals to restructure their lives with cognisance to the existing recession by cutting expenses, reducing unnecessary spending but ensuring also to make space and time for rest and leisure to avoid burn out.

The psychiatrist advised people to stay away from psychoactive substances, stating that though they give temporary relief, they have more adverse effects.

She also charged Nigerians to take care of their emotional health, smile, ventilate, use your social networks, ask for help but if all else fails, visit the nearest mental health professional.

The society also has an integral role to play in this Mapayi asserted.

“Social welfare and other policy measures to help people through the recession will help keep an optimal mental health; help people to retain jobs; support families that are struggling with debt relief;  and   communicate to people on efforts being made to reverse recession.