Global experiences, one goal: dismantling stigma
By See Change Ambassador Blessing Dada
Mental illness is a global public health crisis. Although rates of untreated cases stand as a primary problem, stigma is a significant obstacle. Yet, global differences in levels and roots of stigma remain poorly understood. Every country and culture can be affected by mental illness. Whether here at home in the cool, scenic country of Ireland or in the exotic hot country of Nigeria, the effects of such mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, or even schizophrenia can be felt throughout every homeland. In fact, there is not one single human being exempt from the pain associated with trauma, feeling the pressures of living, or the disturbance of loss in their life.
This is why the discussion and understanding of mental health around the world needs to be culturally intersectional, as it is essential to the growth and prosperity of people from mixed backgrounds or a different culture in our Irish society. We do not need to know every detail about each other’s culture, but that we care enough to ask questions with cultural humility.
Stigma in different cultures
Stigma can have far-reaching and devastating consequences for those lives it touches. It refers to a cluster of negative beliefs, attitudes and behaviours that motivate people to fear, discriminate and reject against people with mental health problems. In many ways, the impact of stigma is remarkably consistent across the world. In some countries, such as in South and South-east Asia and Nigeria, having experience of mental ill health, or even having someone in your immediate family with a mental health condition, can often negatively impact your prospects of marriage, as an example. As a result, people hide mental illness under a cloak of secrecy – further reducing the chances of access to treatment and recovery. Different cultures can have different ideas and interpretations of the term ‘mental health.’ As someone who is Irish and Nigerian, I can relate very well with this. Attitudes toward mental illness vary among individuals, families, ethnicities, cultures, and countries. With my lived experiences of being Nigerian, the root of mental health stigma among Black people can be traced back to slavery. At that time, it was commonly thought that slaves were not sophisticated enough to develop depression, anxiety, or other mental health disorders. From those historic misconceptions, we unfortunately learned to ignore mental illness or call it other terms, like ‘stress’ and ‘being tired. Such descriptions for depression and other mental illnesses that the African community adopted and passed on from generation to generation led to underestimating the effects and impact of mental health conditions. It is also strengthened beliefs that a psychiatric disorder is a personal weakness. All these factors created a culture that is fearful and uninformed about mental illness.
Mental health in Nigeria
Nigeria currently faces a global human rights emergency in mental health. Underpinned by poor societal attitudes towards mental illness and inadequate resources, facilities, and mental health staff, figures suggest that approximately 80% of individuals with serious mental health needs in Nigeria cannot access care. Cultural and religious teachings often influence beliefs about the origins and nature of mental illness, and shape attitudes towards the mentally ill. In addition to influencing whether mentally ill individuals experience social stigma, beliefs about mental illness can affect people’s readiness and willingness to seek and adhere to treatment Nigeria is home to a vast variety of cultures and tribes. Yet across the board, cultural and religious stigma against mental illness runs commonly strong. In my experience, one of the most significant hindrances, is parents and family primarily refuse to acknowledge that there is an individual who is suffering. Despite the positive impact of organizations like Shewriteswoman and MentallyAwareNigeriaInitiative, the biggest threat to Nigeria and its people, remains the deeply rooted negative stigmas associated with mental illness.
There is minimal mental health awareness (with efforts being made currently) and there are not enough mental health professionals in Nigeria .In a country of more than 200 million people, there are only 250 practicing psychiatrists, according to the Association of Psychiatrists of Nigeria. Data on mental health in Nigeria is hard to find, but according to a 2016 report in the Annals of Nigerian Medicine journal, an estimated 20-30% of the country’s population is suffering from mental disorders. In 2017, a World Health Organization report found that Nigerians have the highest incidences of depression in Africa, with more than 7 million people in the country suffering from depression.
Despite the numbers, there is an absence of effective mental health legislation setting standards for psychiatric treatment or encouraging mental health awareness in the country. A bill has yet to be implemented on the rights of persons with mental health conditions in the country.
NGOs are picking up the slack in this area. Shewriteswoman is an example of one, which is a non-profit organization focused on providing mental health support for those who may need it in the west African nation. While the government has failed to concern itself with the mental wellness of its citizens, private individuals have set up various establishments to help address mental healthcare in Nigeria. Nigerians always are going through a collective trauma, with recently due to the End SARS protests and the resulting genocide waged by the government back in October 2020.
Taking care of our mental health, now, more than ever and always, is an act of resistance. Therefore, understanding individual and cultural beliefs about mental illness is essential for the implementation of effective approaches to mental health care.
If you are having a tough time at the moment and need to reach out for support, please contact any of the following