Towards ending secrecy, shame around mental illness: The Unashamed 2020 Campaign

“What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, and more unashamed conversation.”

– Glenn Close


Globally and in Nigeria, there is a rise in the burden of mental disorders, drug abuse and suicide rates. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that one in every four persons are at risk of developing a mental health challenge at some point in time in their lifetime (25 per cent lifetime prevalence). In Nigeria, with an estimated population of about 200 million people, this implies that about 50 million Nigerians are at risk of developing a mental health problem.

Another way to bring these figures home so we appreciate the gravity is to look at it from the family perspective. An average family has at least four members – father, mother and two children. The lifetime prevalence of one in every four persons at risk would, therefore, translate into at least one member in every family at risk of developing a mental health challenge at some point in their life. So, this is not something that happens to other people very distant from us. You and I or our family member may be the ones with a mental health challenge tomorrow.

The question we, therefore, need to answer is: where will your family take you to if you develop a mental health challenge tomorrow?  Traditional healer where you may be chained and beaten? A faith-based healer, where the ‘demons’ that have ‘possessed’ you will be whipped out of you or starved out of you? Or will you be taken to a hospital to receive psychotherapy, medications and support until you recover and get back on your feet?

At the heart of the problem is the pervasive ignorance and superstitious beliefs around mental ill-health. We tend to be fearful and run away from things we do not understand. And this lack of information and myths around mental health challenges makes it seem like a strange and mysterious situation that we are helpless about. But this is not true.

They are simply myths and superstitions. The reality is that mental health challenges are treatable and surmountable. And such individuals can return back to normal and productive lives with their families, at work and as active members and participants in communal living.

It is, therefore, gratifying to see more people and organizations promoting mental health awareness and aiming to dispel the secrecy and darkness around mental health issues. Shedding more light and promoting open conversations will help to dispel the associated shame, stigma as well as the prejudice that leads to discriminatory behaviour against affected persons and their families.

We are therefore enthused about the #unashamed2020 campaign by a mental health advocacy organization, the Asido Foundation, which is hoping to achieve one million people committed to taking the #unashamed2020 pledge. The pledge aims to open a new chapter as we start the decade of the 2020s that promotes open conversations around mental ill-health.

People who take the pledge commit to supporting affected persons and their families; fighting against shame, stigma as well as discrimination; ensuring humane and qualitative mental health services that are in tandem with global best practices; and protect the human rights and dignity of affected persons.

These daunting challenges can best be surmounted, through concerted campaigns that energize the citizenry to become proactive and take a stand. This is what the #unashamed2020 campaign aims to achieve, and we call on our readers to visit and take the pledge.

It is also pertinent to note that beyond the ignorance and lack of access to the right information is the challenge of low government attention towards mental health, with grossly insufficient mental health services across the country. We have very few psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, as well as psychiatric nurses, and the few available are also being continually lost due to brain drain.

We still operate in Nigeria the Lunacy Act of 1958,which is obsolete and a far cry from current dictates of the protection of the dignity and the human rights of affected persons. The name itself makes one cringe. Attempted suicide remains a criminal offence on our statutes.

So we also need the government to reform and strengthen the mental health system with better priority attention, increased funding, speedy reforms and passage of the mental health bill and the faithful integration of mental health into primary care – already a policy since 1991 but with near non-existent implementation.

A multi-faceted approach that involves all stakeholders will be pivotal towards changing the gloomy state of mental health in our society for the better. We are all stakeholders, as we may be directly or indirectly affected at any time. So, we should all add our voice and lend a helping hand to the #unashamed2020 campaign and the push for mental health reforms.



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