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Notebook Health

Onize Ohikere

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.” 

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Ron Harris/AP

The Writebols at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta in August, five years after Nancy underwent treatment there for Ebola (Ron Harris/AP)

Health

Scars to heal

In a country ravaged by war and epidemic, an American Ebola survivor and a Liberian pastor help residents recover from trauma

In August, Nancy Writebol, a missionary with SIM International, celebrated exactly five years of being healed of Ebola. She had contracted the virus during the 2014 outbreak while helping spray health workers with decontaminating bleach at Eternal Love Winning Africa (ELWA) Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia.

On this anniversary of leaving the U.S. hospital where she received treatment, she made dinner with her husband David Writebol, sitting at the table in the same house in Liberia where she had been sick and isolated before her medical evacuation from the country. The Writebols talked almost laughingly about all they went through. They’re a cheerful, jocular couple with a long career in hard places.

But certain memories still make Writebol cry. When she got out of the hospital, she was so thankful to be alive and Ebola-free that she was caught off guard by the way people treated her and her husband afterward. Close friends avoided her, fearful about Ebola. She carried an official letter declaring her to be a safe, noninfectious human being, but at one U.S. airport agents pulled her aside and brought out people in protective gear who said they were going to call in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We were almost afraid to be seen because we didn’t know how people would respond to us,” said Writebol. “To this day it’s still painful.”

Soon after returning to Liberia with SIM in 2015, Nancy Writebol began work as a trauma healing facilitator for Ebola survivors in a country with the barest of mental health resources. She can identify with Liberians not only in terms of surviving Ebola, but also in having her home looted right after she was medically evacuated—something many Liberian survivors experienced.

Evangelical Church of Liberia Pastor Jeremiah Kollie works with Writebol to lead trauma healing sessions and train facilitators. They point out they are not trained psychologists, but simply offer Biblical counseling resources.

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Onize Ohikere

A polio campaign team member dispenses the vaccine to a child. (Onize Ohikere)

Health

A day in a polio campaign

Nigeria is nearly polio-free thanks to oral vaccinations, but some parents remain resistant

At 7:00 on a Saturday morning in July, dozens of volunteers gathered at the primary health center in the town of Karu. It marked the start of a four-day polio campaign on the outskirts of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city.

Supervisors for different groups received last-minute reminders on how to verify their team’s work. Team members collected kits for the day that included identity tags, green overalls, and oral polio vaccines.

Nigeria is the only country in Africa where the wild poliovirus is still considered endemic. But the country has not recorded any natural transmission in nearly three years and could be declared polio-free by the end of this year.

Despite the rigorous vaccination campaigns, several challenges still pose a risk for future outbreaks. Polio is a highly infectious viral disease mostly affecting children younger than 5. Mainly spread through feces, the virus multiples in the intestine and can infect the nervous system, eventually resulting in paralysis. The disease has no cure but can be prevented by vaccination.

At the clinic, all the volunteers teamed up and left for their designated areas. There, they started a routine that continued for the next four hours: knock on each door, introduce themselves as a team from the immunization unit, and ask if families have any children age 5 or younger.

At the houses with children, they dispensed drops of the oral vaccine into each child’s mouth, then marked his left pinky finger with a purple marker to indicate he received it.

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