Fatima is 15 years old and has always craved the love, attention and approval of her parents but the harder she tried, the harsher they treated her. Her father was especially critical and everything she did was never good enough. Her mother on the other hand, frequently compares her above average academic performance, with her more brilliant older siblings. She cried herself to sleep most nights and eventually became depressed and suicidal. She attempted to take her own life but failed and that was when the depth of her despair finally became apparent.
Kunle was always shy and the smallest boy in his class all through secondary school. He was also brilliant and teachers loved him but the other students resented and bullied him. He had no friend in the school. Until a new student, Ayo, transferred to the school and befriended him. Ayo introduced him to smoking cannabis to overcome his shyness, become bold and for other students to start treating him with respect as a ‘hard guy’. He tried it and it seemed to be working, as no one tried to bully him anymore. He was thrilled and enjoying his new status; he even started bullying other students who were now afraid of him. Until 6 months later, when he started behaving abnormally and shouting irrationally as if he was hearing voices talking to him.
Audu was kidnapped on his way from Kaduna to Abuja and was in the forest for 3 weeks before he was released after his family had paid ransom for him. He had been beaten severally and feared for his life severally, as the bandits threated to shoot him because his people were not raising enough money. He had returned home for over 4 weeks now but finds it difficult to fall asleep at night. He is very jumpy and loud noises makes him feel like running away. He is afraid to enter a car anymore or travel for whatever reason, even though he was expected to resume back at the Kaduna office. He has frequent nightmares and wakes up screaming and sweating.
What are the Risk Factors for Mental Illness?
Individual risk factors: Starting form pregnancy, birth up until early childhood, poor and unsupervised pregnancies may result in some brain damage to the child. Adverse childhood experiences (ACE) such as parental death or exposure to child abuse (physical, emotional or sexual) also increases the risk of future mental health problems. In adolescence and adulthood, poor habits such as drug abuse, relationship difficulties, family history of mental illness etc may increase the risk of developing emotional health challenges.
Family, societal and governmental risk factors: A chaotic family creates tension, anxiety and feelings of low self esteem in the children. It also results in depression, anxiety and substance use for the spouses. It may be compounded with intimate partner violence. Children may lack a close and confiding relationship with any of the parents. Increasingly too, our society is no longer closely knit and social support networks are weak or non-existent.
Super-imposed on all these is the pervasive insecurity of lives and property for all citizens. Poverty, absence of social welfare systems and reduced access to the basic essentials of life are additional stressors.
What Can We Do To Promote Emotional Wellbeing?
Individual Roles: Invest in social relationships and being nice to yourself and to others. Indeed, being nice to others helps us feel better too. Engage in regular physical exercise such as going for strolls, running, aerobics, and generally staying active. Exercise releases chemicals that lift our mood and improves our emotional wellbeing. Avoid drug abuse and ensure you get adequate sleep and rest. Keep the company of people who make you smile and laugh, and not those who make you feel miserable, irritable, and worked up. It’s not the number but the quality of relationships that matter.
Role of the Community and Society: Promote empathy, understanding and support for persons who may be struggling emotionally. Stop shaming and stigmatizing them or telling them to just snap out of it – as if you think they are just being lazy. Emotional problems are like invisible wounds and so because we don’t see them (unlike seeing someone with a fracture for instance); we tend to be clueless about how much emotional pain and intense anguish they may be going through. The Clergy too have an important role to play in educating their congregations that mental illness is not from the devil but a medical disorder that should be treated….in addition to prayers.
Role of the Government: The mental health bill for reforming the practice of mental health care for all citizens need to be passed and signed into law expeditiously. We currently still operate an obsolete Lunacy Act of 1958. Priority should be accorded to improving access to quality mental health services, attempted suicide should be decriminalized, and safety of lives and property should be guaranteed. Basic amenities as well as social welfare services should be prioritized for all citizens.
Conclusion: Promoting emotional wellness involves ensuring a way of life that minimizes exposures to avoidable risk factors while actively engaging in actions that enhance wellbeing. We can proactively do this as individuals, as families and as a community.
Tribune Article for the column “Your Mental Health & You”
Thursday, 22nd April 2021