It would appear, in post-Covid-19 times, mental health has become an acceptable topic for polite social discussion. From footballers to heads of state, people feel more comfortable nowadays talking about the mental health of others, and sometimes their own, and even expressing vulnerability.
It has not always been like this, of course. Something has changed and is still changing.
From the standpoint of a professional who has been trying for decades to educate the public against stigma and spread awareness of the reality of mental illness, the increased conversation, as well as a resulting increased readiness to seek help, is a welcome development.
Several decades ago, when presented with the opportunity to publish the first Nigerian mental health newspaper column in the Sunday Concord, Dele Giwa had read through the introductory instalment of the column and immediately unleashed his famous gap-toothed smile as you sat with him in his office.
It can be inferred that the action that people are required to take to help the cause would include thoughts on how to get society to see the suicide victim as an ill person who deserves sympathy,…
‘Why do you want to call it ‘A Life In The Day of a Psychiatrist,’ and not ‘A day in the life of a Psychiatrist’? Just curious.’
You carefully explained it to him.
‘I like this. When do you want to start?’
He got it. He was Dele Giwa, after all, the superstar editor who had had a stint at New York Times before coming home to roost.
By the time the column began to run, Dele had left the Concord newspaper, after a tiff with MKO Abiola, the proprietor. Still, he was gracious enough to come up to meet you at a social club in Yaba where you unexpectedly ran into him soon after.
‘I love ‘A Life In the Day’. I’m glad we started it.’
We- you thought?
Fantastic guy, Dele Giwa. May his soul rest in perfect peace.
Improving public awareness of mental illness is still work in progress. And not all the effects arising from the increased discussion are necessarily salutary. Some of the information that is put out regularly is wrong, or overstated, or over-generalised. And the increased readiness of the public, especially the young, internet savvy population, to seek help, sometimes because it is actually fashionable for them to be able to tell their friends ‘I’m seeing a Therapist,’ has led to the emergence of a rash of charlatans in the public space – people who tout qualifications of dubious provenance and advertise themselves on the social media as ‘Coach’ or by various other descriptions. Some of them make a killing, charging hefty fees. There has been no coordinated activity by psychiatrists and psychologists to define and standardise the requirements for anybody to be registered and labelled as a ‘therapist.’
The prolonged lock-down of Covid-19 with its attendant mental health problems was a massive stressor across the world. Public and private resources such as helplines and walk-in centres were deployed to meet an increased public need. And advocacy initiatives, which had long been in existence, to little effect, received a boost in public attention. Among these are the annual celebrations of World Suicide Week and World Mental Health Day.
World Suicide Prevention Day (WSPD) was started in 2003. Its focus has been on organising global and regional activities to increase awareness about suicidal behaviour and how to prevent it. It is the thirteenth leading cause of death. More people die from suicide than from murder and war every year.
World Suicide Prevention Day was celebrated on September 10 this year as part of a whole week of advocacy. Its triennial theme – spanning to 2023, is ‘Creating Hope Through Action.’ It can be inferred that the action that people are required to take to help the cause would include thoughts on how to get society to see the suicide victim as an ill person who deserves sympathy, assessment, and treatment rather than being gawked at as a freak on the pages of sensational newspapers, with his whole life and his family life laid bare in the papers for the delectation of the public.
Such sympathetic advocacy is beginning very slowly to affect people’s attitudes. Recently, two young Nigerians – a psychiatrist – Dr Olufemi Oluwatayo, and a journalist – Martins Ifijeh, collaborated to write a book titled ‘Morning After.’ The book is dedicated to correcting the sensational and insensitive journalistic reporting of attempted suicide stories in the Nigerian press. There are help lines now for people who feel themselves being desperately driven to suicide.
In a few days, on Monday, October 10th, it will be World Mental Health Day. All over the world, including Nigeria, people will be waking to the theme of the day, which is ‘Make mental health and well-being for all a global priority.’
Unlike other themes in previous years, many of which have focussed on the need to recognise and treat illness, and not to stigmatise it, the tone of this year’s celebration speaks of ‘mental well-being’ as a good and worthwhile objective that may be pursued in the society, at work, and at an individual level. It is a deliberate and worthwhile shift of focus from a preoccupation with illness to a pursuit of wellness.
Indeed, mental well-being may be cultivated through a wholesome lifestyle that is effectively networked with others, one in which there is a lot of physical and mental exercise and relaxation, and a continuous effort to minimise stress and manage what irreducible stress there is, a positive attitude to life that shows interest in helping others and society at large. It is a good message that will resonate well with the youths and others next Monday when it rings out in the media, and in seminars and public meetings.
It is a message that should play well among Nigerians, who live routinely with levels of stress that are inimical to well-being, and who are yet learn that there are ways to live down the stress and keep the threat of illness, including a possible recourse to suicide, at bay, possibly for all time.