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Notebook Health

Maladies of the mind

Activists in Abuja encourage open dialogue about mental health issues. (Onize Ohikere)

Health

Maladies of the mind

Nonprofits in Nigeria are working to combat suicide and mental illness, especially among the nation’s youth

On a cloudy Saturday morning here in May, around 30 young people in matching T-shirts gathered under a bridge, armed with posters on mental health. They walked across the city for more than an hour, backed by music from two loudspeakers. The group handed out emergency contact cards to passersby and occasionally chanted, “Speak your mind!” and “Better health for all!”

A local nonprofit, Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative, or MANI, organized the march across seven of Nigeria’s 36 states. In Abuja, the movement was timely: Stories were making the rounds on social media about two young men who separately committed suicide one day apart in May.

The cases are among a rising number of publicized suicide attempts across the country. Groups like MANI are stepping in to combat stereotypes surrounding mental health and to inform people about available assistance.

Victor Ugo founded MANI in 2016 out of his own personal struggles. Two years earlier, he was a medical student at a Nigerian university when he started to feel dispirited and unmotivated. “I wasn’t reading. I wasn’t sleeping. I lost interest in everything.”

His friends and some of his professors intervened and encouraged him to see a doctor, who diagnosed him with major depressive disorder. He started treatment and therapy and began to recover, but decided he wanted more than just his own healing.

“If I could go through this, then what about everyone else who didn’t have the same access or friends that I had?”

According to government officials, 3 in 10 Nigerians suffer from a mental health disorder. The World Health Organization says Nigeria has the 15th-highest number of reported suicide cases in the world, in an age-standardized tally.

Ugo launched the nonprofit with a focus on young people. It has so far offered as many as 10,000 suicide interventions. Trained counselors on call provide five free sessions to people who request help on the organization’s website. Offline, MANI hosts events, like its “conversation cafés” across 10 states. Those events involve difficult conversations with participants on issues such as mental health stigmas.

Last year, the group tracked down and stopped someone from committing suicide at a beach in Lagos just as he was walking into the water.

“We got him out, then he snatched the gun from a policeman,” Ugo recalled. “I had to go get it from him. It was such a scary moment.” 

Onize Ohikere

Young people march to end the silence on mental health. (Onize Ohikere)

On May 13, Chukwuemeka Akachi—a college senior—committed suicide following months of dark Facebook posts that documented his struggle with depression. The next day, Michael Arowosaiye, a worship leader at a church in Abuja, hung himself.

In January, a Lagos-based DJ poisoned himself with insecticide after posting a suicide message on Instagram. The Police Rapid Response Squad in Lagos has increased its patrol along the Third Mainland Bridge over the past year due to multiple suicide attempts. 

In most cases, the suicidal ideation seems to stem from psychiatric conditions like depression and anxiety, as well as alcohol and drug abuse. Environmental factors such as rising urbanization, economic uncertainty, and unemployment also add to the mix, Ugo said. With more suicide stories publicized on social media, copycat incidents are on the rise, with many cases involving an insecticide called “Sniper.”

Zunzika Thole-Okpo with the Abuja-based Gede Foundation said many suicidal people remain quiet due to the social stigma surrounding mental illness. She pointed to the negative comments that flooded several of Akachi’s posts on his Facebook page. 

“People’s responses would make anyone going through the same thing think twice, like ‘Why would I seek for help if they’re talking to somebody that’s asking for help this way?’”

The foundation hopes to change that trend and has partnered with U.K.-based Basic Needs to educate Nigerians on mental health disorders. Gede has also worked with local and religious authorities and healthcare providers to identify patients and provide treatment.

Thole-Okpo said such partnerships have proven essential, especially in cases where misguided religious beliefs contribute to the stigma. “We had a case where a woman was tied to a pole inside a church for over three years because she was schizophrenic, and they were just praying for her, thinking she had demons.”

After losing a friend to suicide in 2013, Christian Pastor Smart Chongo started to organize campaigns and received training in professional counseling. Three years later, he launched a hotline service under the Smart Suicide Prevention Initiative.

Today, he said, the group receives more than 5,000 calls nationwide each month. As a pastor, Chongo acknowledges the link between mental health concerns and religion. When people call in, he connects them with psychological centers, prayer groups, or Islamic clerics, depending on their background. 

Yet he noted the need for balance. “If you are sick, you need medical attention and prayers,” he said. “I believe you going for tests to know exactly what’s wrong would help you pray better.”

Onize Ohikere

Bitrus Luka (Onize Ohikere)

In Abuja’s Mpape district, Bitrus Luka first started to receive treatment and counseling for epilepsy three years ago. His family had tried different traditional medicines that failed to work. People avoided him because of his seizures, fearing he was possessed or contagious. “I would feel depressed,” he said. 

Luka now belongs to one of several local support groups Gede has created, and shares his story with other group members. The participants educate their community and contribute money each month to assist each other with subsidized medication prescriptions.

As more suicide cases get attention online, Ugo said, people need accurate information beyond the initial buzz of hashtags that spring up and quickly die down with each incident. He hopes for mental health lessons to be included in school curricula and for advocacy groups at universities. 

“What we really need to increase is not mental health awareness,” he said. “We need to increase mental health literacy.” 

Thole-Okpo noted it’s also important to push out hotlines for help when people discuss mental health or share stories online. In the comment section on Akachi’s page, she noticed one person asking for help.

“Maybe they were just trolling, but I shared some help lines. I hope they take them seriously.”