The media (traditional and new media) are powerful influencers and shapers of public opinion. They can also be strong and positive allies to promote public awareness about emotional wellbeing, protective factors, risk factors, prevention efforts and to encourage health-seeking behaviour.
Indeed, the platform of the media can be deployed to dispel common misconceptions about mental illness and provide optimal publicity to positive stories of people who despite the odds have overcome mental illness and have successfully received treatment and are now functioning very well without problems.
This potential is not always realised, with negative media portrayals being the norm. Such portrayals, unfortunately, increase societal stigma and discrimination against persons with mental health challenges, causing the problems to be hidden away and become a source of embarrassment and humiliation to affected individuals and their family members. It may also reinforce negative stereotypes about mental illness as a spiritual problem that is not treatable in hospitals. Unfortunately, this is often the case in many Nollywood movies depicting mental illness.
It is against this backdrop that it is gratifying to note the positive approach of the Nigerian Tribune with the creation of space for weekly mental health column on Thursdays, titled ‘Your Mental Health & You’ which started running in August 2016.
This has provided an avenue for raising public awareness about mental health, recognising common symptoms and promoting optimal emotional wellbeing. It has also aimed at reducing the shame and stigma associated with mental health challenges.
These articles over the past three years have now been collated into one-volume as a book which was launched on Monday the 2nd September 2019 at the Osuntokun Auditorium of the University College Hospital, Ibadan, with the Immediate former Minister of Health, Professor Isaac F. Adewole and Mr Lateef O. Fagbemi as special guests.
The book as a culmination of this innovative platform provided by the Tribune has received positive reviews from experts and the general public. Professor Norman Sartorius, a former president of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), had this to say from Geneva, Switzerland: “Dr Abdulmalik has taken the bold and difficult step of translating knowledge from the disciplines of psychiatry and psychology into simple and clear everyday language describing steps that can be taken to improve our mental health.”
Professor Idowu Olayinka, the vice-chancellor of the University of Ibadan was also happy to note this development as a positive partnership between the academic world of the university and society. He said: “I am impressed by Dr Abdulmalik’s passion, consistency and elegant communication. This book is a pragmatic illustration of the utilisation of scholarly expertise in the service of humanity”.
The Editor of the Nigerian Tribune, Mr Debo Abdulai, was also happy to point out that “the transformation of these life-saving pieces (articles) into a book is clear evidence of the public acceptance of the column and Dr Abdulmalik’s extension of his humanitarian service to the larger society.”
From the corporate world too came validation about the usefulness of the fruit of this partnership with the Tribune Newspaper. Mr Meka Olowola, MD of Zenera Consulting, had high praise for the articles compiled into this book volume: “Using gripping relatable narratives, Dr Abdulmalik is quietly revolutionizing our understanding and approach to mental health in this country.”
The academia was not left out. Professor Graham Thornicroft, from Kings College London, praised the book thus: “This is a deeply humanitarian book which students, healthcare staff, policymakers, people with mental illness and family members, members of faith communities and staff in the workplace will find enormously interesting and rewarding.”
Professor Oye Gureje, from the University of Ibadan, expressed his confidence that this book volume will be “a useful resource for learning how to strengthen our mental health and prevent the emergence of mental illness in our communities….and what to do when it occurs”.
The media has a daunting responsibility to provide factual information on all health matters – including mental health. The Nigerian Tribune in this regard, is blazing the trail and deserves all the praise and encouragement.
The onus is on all other media houses to also take some responsibility for mental health advocacy, providing factual information and positively influencing public opinion and health-seeking behaviour.
They should also aim to discourage harmful and stigmatizing reporting of mental illness and affected persons. Mental health professionals are always ready and willing to partner with the media in this direction.