A 43-year-old man was recently in the news, in a story that quickly went viral. He was a 500L medical student at the University of Ibadan when he had to drop out on account of his mental health struggles. He was clearly unable to stay well enough to cope with the challenging rigor of his medical studies.
For someone brilliant enough to secure admission into a top medical school, passed all his examinations until he was within touching distance of qualifying as a medical doctor, this was truly a sad turn of events.
The second major issue that came to the fore in this sad story is that he had wanted to study Engineering but was nudged to study Medicine because he was brilliant. Thus, he struggled to cope, even though his heart was not really in it.
He is still bitter till date, as he considers it a huge mistake in his life that has negatively affected him.
He became estranged from his family at some point, as a result of his persisting belief that they coerced him into studying medicine against his wish.
Due to his faulty thinking process in the context of his mental illness, he attempted to castrate himself as a means of controlling his sexual urges. But the pain and the bleeding caused him to stop and to seek medical treatment. At the moment, he now does menial jobs – including as a wheelbarrow pusher in order to make ends meet.
The numerous challenges faced by persons with mental illness are legion, especially in our environment. They include shame and stigma, discrimination, human rights abuses – especially in traditional or faith-based healing houses where they may be chained, beaten, deprived of food and water, or even sexually abused.
Ignorance and superstitious beliefs about the causes of mental illness also prevents many affected persons and their families from seeking medical interventions that will help them recover and return to normal functioning.
Another glaring challenge is the poor social welfare services of the government that does not step up to provide services when citizens are affected by mental illness and gradually fall through the cracks – until they start roaming the streets as homeless persons with mental health challenges.
Thus, the burden of care, and providing social support is almost exclusively on the individual families to provide. And when they become exhausted or simply do not know what to do, things go south very quickly for the affected person.
We need the Ministries of Social Welfare in each state to be proactive and intervene by covering the treatment and rehabilitation costs for homeless persons roaming the streets in their locations. They can be treated and rehabilitated successfully.
Back to the specific story of the young man above, several commentators have argued that the stress of medical school was what broke him down. While that may well have been an additional stressor, many serious mental disorders such as schizophrenia, mania, depression, bipolar disorder, drug abuse etc, often rear their head for the first time between the ages of 15 and 25 years.
Which is why it is not surprising that many young men and women, during their university days, will experience a mental illness for the first time in their life. How it subsequently pans out, depends on social support, access to quality mental health care and the school authorities showing understanding and flexibility. If any of these critical factors is missing, the outcome will be poor.
Mental illnesses are quite common with the World Health Organization (WHO) estimating that 1 in 4 persons will suffer from a mental disorder at some point in their lifetime.
Thus, the implication is that in every family with at least 4 members, 1 family member may struggle with a mental health problem at some point in their lifetime. So, it could happen to me or you.
My reality check question to you is this: What will happen to you if you start hearing voices and behaving abnormally today? What will your family do? Where will you be taken to? Will you be chained and hidden away? Or taken to a hospital? Will you be treated decently? Are you sure?
Many young men and women develop mental illness every day. Several of them drop out of school, stop their business, or craft and never recover. But they do not make headlines because it is not as catchy as the story of a medical student dropping out to become a wheelbarrow pusher.
But every citizen deserves access to quality mental health care services and a life of dignity. Everyone deserves a chance to be the best they can be, and not be hindered by mental illness that is treatable. We need to nudge governments at all levels to invest in mental health care services.
Tribune Article for the column “Your Mental Health & You”
Thursday, 11th March 2021