By Dr Emmanuel Owoyemi CEO Mental Health Foundation, Nigeria
Heartrose care foundation

One out of every four Nigerian is suffering from one form of mental illness (WHO, 2020). This means that approximately 50 million Nigerians are suffering from, at least, one form of mental ailment.
This was exactly the case before the unprecedented hit of the current global health emergency caused by COVID-19. The reality, as we have it now, is worse than it was then.
According to WHO, Nigeria -with the highest burden of depression in Africa- is ranked 15th in the world in the suicide frequency. In a country of approximately 200 million people, less than 150 psychiatrists bear the caseload of treating mental illness. The WHO estimates that fewer than 10 percent of mentally ill Nigerians have access to the care they need.
The historic neglect of mental health has impacted negatively on every aspect of life in Nigeria. Our children, from age 15 are wrecks from the sweet, alluring poison of substance abuse. The increase in unemployment rate is churning our able men and women into psychologically senseless domestic violence weapons. Our underfunded, inadequate psychiatric hospitals are increasingly burdened to a degree of structural collapse. A disquieting sight in these hospitals is the long queues of tormented patients who on the average need aid to stand uprightly. In 2018, Yaba Neuropsychiatric Hospital faced a 22 percent increase in visiting patients and this rate is a common feature across our dying hospitals.
The devastating shade of this grim reality is that our experts are tired of the senseless disregard for mental health in Nigeria. The deplorable condition of our health sector has now become a perilous demotivation to our experts. In 2017, Non-Profit Organisations Health Watch concluded in a poll that nine out of every ten doctors in Nigeria are seeking to leave the country to find work elsewhere. Dr Demola Alalade, Nigerian Psychiatric Resident who emigrated to the United Kingdom, told Aljazeera: “it’s better to be a medical officer in a system that works than a psychiatrist in a system that doesn’t”.
Now, the above condition was before the impact of COVID-19.
What trails behind the pandemic is a collapse of economic institutions both on the micro and macro dimensions: price systems are creaking under the strain of the impact. Socialist economics are shirking, too. This new reality challenges the world, leaving nothing but fear, anxiety, isolation, uncertainty, restriction and emotional distress. Had we an efficient health system, this challenge would have been easily surmountable, but the case, as we have seen, is that the pandemic rose against an already neglected mental health landscape in Nigeria.
It is to the above concern that I humbly cry out to the Nigerian Government to act promptly, strategically and (especially) wisely. I cry out to the Government to make decisions that will preserve and ultimately enhance our mental health, bearing in mind that we are on a mattering brink. I cry out to the government to remember the Abuja Declaration of 2001. I cry out to the Government to ease our feeble mind. I cry out to the Government to sprinkle the fresh water of mental health on our already creaked desert land. I cry out to the Government to honour the Abuja Declaration.
In 2001, the Nigerian government, along with twenty other member nations signed the Abuja Declaration. It was a promise to earmark 15 percent of her federal budget to healthcare. The 5 percent of our total budget for 2020 allocated to health is a betrayal of this promise.
What sprung to mind is the popular saying of Lao Tsu: if you don’t change direction you will end up exactly where you are heading”. Tsu’s nugget is a bitter pill to swallow when one considers the direction our public health is trudging.
The question that rises to mind is: “if we continue in this direction, what shall become of our mental health in three years’ time, in 2023?
I cry out to the Government, stay true to your promise. Stay true to Abuja Declaration. Invest in mental health..

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