The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently raised the alarm that about one billion people worldwide are living with mental disorders. It also revealed that three million people die annually from harmful use of alcohol and one person dies every second from suicide. The global health agency disclosed this prior to the marking of the World Mental Health Day on October 10. In a new survey, the WHO has revealed that the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has halted access to crucial mental services in many countries across the world. In Africa, the pandemic has increased the demand for mental health services.
According to the WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, “isolation, loss of income, the death of loved ones and a barrage of information on the dangers of this new virus can stir up stress levels and trigger mental health conditions or exacerbate existing ones.” Moeti also reiterated that “the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, more than ever, how mental health is integral to health and well-being and must be an essential part of health services during outbreaks and emergencies.”
It is pathetic that of all the African countries surveyed, 37 per cent stated that their COVID-19 mental health response plans are partly funded, while another 37 per cent said theirs were not funded. The Nigerian Association of Psychiatrists (APN) has warned about the rising cases of mental illness in the country. The APN claimed that the COVID-19 pandemic has raised the prevalence rate from 25 to 40 per cent. The President of APN, Prof. Taiwo Sheikh, decried the rates of suicides, parasuicides, depression, anxiety disorders, rape and other violent behaviours and substance abuse challenges. Unfortunately, not much is being done to address the situation at the three tiers of government.
Available statistics show that Nigeria has about 350 psychiatrists to attend to the mental health of over 200 million people. No doubt, some of these doctors might have migrated to Europe and America with better conditions of service. Therefore, the rising cases of mental illness in Nigeria calls for increased funding of mental health. Nigeria should build more psychiatrist hospitals and train more psychiatrists in order to make mental health care services accessible and affordable. Sadly, the attention given to mental health disorders are dismal; and the level of awareness of the Nigerian public on mental health issues is also understandably poor with the vast majority wallowing in misconceptions. It is our hope that government should take due cognizance of this and reverse the trend.
The 2006 WHO-AIMS report on mental health system in Nigeria made some shocking revelations. It states: ”there is considerable neglect of mental health issues in the country.” The existing Mental Health Policy in Nigeria was formulated in 1991. Since then, it has not undergone any revision to keep tab with current trends and developments. That is why it has become urgent to pass into law the mental health bill which is now before the National Assembly. When passed into law, the mental health bill will increase access to affordable treatment, care and support for people affected by mental disorders. It is good that the Lagos State government has reportedly started the implementation of its mental health law passed in 2019. We urge states to follow the Lagos example.
We urge government to look into this and address holistically mental health issues. It is heartwarming that the leadership of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) recently declared that the NMA will work closely with the National Assembly to pass a comprehensive bill on mental health in Nigeria as part of its corporate responsibility to mental health community and the society.
We commend the initiative and believe it will go a long way to alleviate the pains and elevate the rights of people who labour under the illness by treating them with respect and dignity. Let the government evolve a comprehensive national strategy to address mental health problems in the country with emphasis on prevention. It is hoped that government backs its policy and strategies with the required action so that the nation develops and implements a policy and legal framework on mental health issues.
Above all, government at all levels should take necessary steps to educate the public on mental health and how to access treatment. There is need for societal and family support for those with the condition and avoid stigmatising them.