Shortly after completing my NYSC, I was employed as a medical officer at a Federal Medical Centre in a South-west state in Nigeria and I was posted to the Psychiatry unit. Among my duties as a medical officer in the unit was to run a weekly clinic along with the Consultant, duties which I did enjoy.
The cases we attended to, were an eye opener for me. I learnt how people descended to depths of despair to the point of losing their reality when tough life events happen to them. I listened first-hand, to very traumatic stories of human suffering with mental illness and the long-convoluted routes before they eventually arrived at the hospital.
Interestingly, the patients never bothered me. I do not remember being afraid for my life while attending to a patient neither do I remember ever being harassed by a patient throughout my stint in the Department.
One thing I certainly do remember is the ‘not so warm’ treatment I received from other health workers including other doctors and nurses. And my treatment was only the tip of the iceberg, compared to what the patients I looked after, had to endure.
I remember being called ‘Doctor wѐrѐ’, which means ‘mad person’s doctor’, and I remember being teased repeatedly about the type of patients I attended to.
I remember very clearly, a particular case of a very enterprising lady who was still under 30 years old, but she already owned her own business and was doing well. Unfortunately, she had some mental health challenges which appeared to have been precipitated by her boyfriend breaking up with her.
She became psychotic, ranted irrationally and lost touch with reality. Fortunately, she had a supportive family, her mother and sister brought her to us and cared for her throughout her hospital admission.
Unfortunately, again, there was no dedicated psychiatry ward in this facility and no specialised psychiatry nurses, so she had to be admitted into the general female ward.
Because of her irrational but non-violent behaviour, she was admitted at the end of the ward and placed in a corner. The nurses were not trained psychiatric nurses and disliked having psychiatric patients admitted on their wards. They rarely attended to her and were hostile in manner and in words.
They also did not discourage other patients from being hostile towards her as well. It became a vicious cycle, and she responded by becoming verbally aggressive towards them, she barked at everyone, she spat at everyone, and was generally uncooperative.
In turn, the nurses documented that she was aggressive and used physical restraints (made from bed sheets) to keep her tied on her bed. She didn’t like being restrained and therefore howled and screamed all night and deprived everyone on the ward of sleep. By morning, they were all fed up with her and insisted that she should be removed from their ward.
Her distraught sister came crying to us in the clinic and I went with her to attend to the matter. As I entered the ward, all the patients shouted at me to remove this patient from the ward and relocate her to a ward of ‘her own kind’. That was when I lost my cool. All the previous taunts and harassment I had endured over time finally erupted, and I was ready to give it to anyone who mis-spoke.
“This ward is a ward for human beings who are unwell. It is the ward for my patient and any other person who is a fellow human being.” I spoke clearly and firmly. However, anyone who is not a human being and wanted to leave this ward was free to sign that they wanted to be discharged against medical advice and we will gladly allow them to leave!! I concluded.
And then there was pin drop silence on the ward, as I surveyed the ward with my eyes blazing fire. Pardon me, I was a young doctor who hadn’t learnt the art of tact and was completely fed up with the teasing and insensitivity.🙈
Well, that story ended well as the lady got better within a few days and everyone on the ward became friends with her as her natural warmth and sense of humour won them over. She was discharged after 3 weeks and she returned to her usual life and business (without the ex-boyfriend). She has been fine since then with no further troubles.
It never occurred to me then that the treatment I received from my fellow doctor colleagues and nurses was a form of discrimination perpetuated by ignorance and bias. But I realize now that many educated folks including health workers are very ignorant about mental illness.
No one was openly hostile to me, and I was never barred from participating in activities, nor was I deprived of opportunities based on being a mental health provider. But I was surprised and often taken aback by the negative comments frequently hurled at me and the clients I looked after.
I was even more surprised that these negative comments came from people armed with the opportunities to educate themselves. People who should know better. For crying out loud these were health care workers – doctors and nurses.
I subsequently went on to specialize as a paediatrician but the insight I gained from my working experience in a psychiatric unit has stayed with me over the years. I am more understanding and empathetic towards affected persons and their families. And therefore, I jumped at the opportunity to join the Asido Foundation where I currently serve as Deputy Director for Service User Empowerment.
The mandate of the Asido Foundation to promote better understanding, empathy and support for persons with mental illness and their families cannot be overrated. The pervasive shame, stigma and discrimination in our society – and even among health workers is appalling and leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
I am especially focused on changing the attitudes and behaviors of health care workers for the better.
It is therefore, a no brainer that I would encourage us all to support the #unashamed campaign of the Asido Foundation.
This is a campaign that aims to achieve open conversations around mental illness in this new decade of the 2020s. Visit www.asidofoundation.com/unashamed and sign the pledge to support and encourage those with mental health challenges. We are aiming for 1 million signatures.
Please sign and invite others to also do same. Our work is cut out for us all. But we shall overcome. Failure and giving up are not options. We move. Join us. Take the pledge now.
Dr Busayo Babatunde
Consultant Paediatrician, Lagos,
Deputy Director, Service User Empowerment,
Living With Mental Illness Africa (LIMI-Africa) is an initiative of the Directorate of Service User Empowerment at the Asido Foundation.
It aims to share encouraging and positive stories that can inspire others who may be living with, or caring for persons with mental health challenges across the African Continent.
Do you have an encouraging story to share? Do you know someone who does? Is it an African story/experience? Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.