I Used to Think Mental Health is a Foreign Concept and not An African Issue

Mental health services are a universal right and you deserve to have the support you need.

Isioma Ononye
6 min readOct 10, 2023

Photo by Ian Kiragu on Unsplash

Growing up in Nigeria, I was used to seeing mental health being addressed mostly in entertainment: movies and shows. Also, the people involved were often from the Caucasian community.

Back then, I assumed that having discussions and getting mental health support was a Western concept. That it wasn’t an African issue. That it wasn’t a Christian issue but even taboo. That someone with a mental health condition was someone who couldn’t function well in society.

These misconceptions about mental health were with me through my adolescence in spite of the fact that I battled with anxiety and a negative perception of myself and the world around me.

It wasn’t until I grew into adulthood that I started to embrace getting mental health support and getting mental health support is significant. It’s helped me in improving my mindset and personal development.

Due to my positive experience with getting mental health support, I believe everyone should be able to access mental health services but there are challenges to overcome.

One of the barriers is how the government makes mental health a priority. Secondly is the stigma that comes with discussing mental health. Thirdly is the number of facilities that provide support and then there is also the issue of affordability.

Addressing these barriers is needed as we celebrate World Mental Health day today because we must all acknowledge the theme of having mental health as a universal right.

The necessity of everyone accessing mental health services is important to me because it matters to get the support or treatment one needs for their condition.

If people can’t get the support they need for their condition, it affects their way of life and functioning in society. Getting support should be available and accessible everywhere.

Whether you are from Nigeria or Ghana, whether you are from New York or LA. Whether you are in London or China, if you need mental health services, you should be able to get it.

In this article, I want to highlight some challenges around mental health in Nigeria and how they are being addressed.

Breaking the Stigma over Mental Health Conditions in Nigeria

As a Christian growing up in a Nigerian home, I was of the belief that when you have issues and challenges, you take it to God. You pray and believe that everything will be alright.

In 1 Peter 5:7 of the Bible, we read that “cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” We should give our problems to God. That is the truth but sometimes, you need additional help.

Yet in the African continent, needing mental health support carries negative connotations. Some negative perceptions of mental health can be someone stating that “you’re mad” or that “your head is not correct.”

In spite of the negative connotations, there are ways to dispel the myths about mental health. One of it is awareness. People should be willing to share their mental health challenges. By sharing your story, you encourage someone else who might need the help to know that they can receive it.

For myself, my mental health issues had to be addressing negative thought patterns. Overcoming feelings of sadness and learning how to change my perception and view of myself and others.

Talk therapy makes a difference in my life. What also has helped me is making exercise a priority. At least once a week, I go for a jog at the park and it makes me feel happier.

I also believe that another way to dispel myths is to speak to others from diverse backgrounds who have had mental health struggles. To speak to experts in the field and those who are receiving mental health support. I have had some conversations on social media with experts on mental health.

Through our discussions, we emphasize that having mental health issues is not just about someone being “mad.” The reality is that anyone can have a mental health condition. It’s not only the person you see walking around fidgeting or talking to themselves.

Mental health conditions can be the little things that become big things when not attended to.

When we openly discuss mental health issues without judgment, then others know that it’s okay. It’s okay to feel sad and it’s okay to get anxious. You can get help.

Making Mental Health a Priority in the Nigerian Government

Former President Muhammadu Buhari signed into law the Mental Health Bill 2021. The Mental Health Bill was an act to provide the enhancement and regulation of mental health and substance abuse services, to protect mental health needs and the establishment of national commission for mental and substance abuse services for the effective management of mental health in Nigeria.

The bill was sponsored by Senator Oloriegbe Yahaya Ibrahim.

Part of what the bill entails is that in section 15: (J), it states that one must ensure and guarantee the fundamental human rights and safety of persons with mental and substance use disorders against discrimination and stigmatization.

In section 18 (k), it states you should ensure that in-patient mental health care services are of an equitable standard to physical in-patient care.

Also, under Basic Human Rights in the Bill, we read that a person with mental and substance use disorder is entitled to humane and dignified treatment at any time with respect to personal dignity and privacy.

Having the Mental Health Act become law is significant in Nigeria because it enables others to know that mental health conditions should not restrict one from having a good quality of life. It should not lead to bias and discrimination in society.

If someone feels that they are being stigmatised because of their mental health condition, then they should let others know that this bill is evidence that they can take the case up.

Overall, having the bill passed helps to create more awareness and support for those who need to receive mental health services to know that this is their basic and human right.

Getting Help and Counselling For Mental Health Conditions

Mental health conditions can always be treated or managed. For one to start the process of getting treatment and support, you need to first access mental health services.

In Nigeria, some organisations champion the mental health cause. I have been involved with Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative and Mental Health for Youth Initiative.

To access cost-effective support, I interviewed the founder of The Mind Clinic which offers free mental health support to those who need it. The founder is also the author of “20 Shades of Iveren,” which discusses trauma.

Of course, for obtaining mental health support online only, there are international platforms such as Better Help Therapy or Faithful Counselling.

Why Everyone Needs to Access Mental Health Support

Mental health should be accessible to everyone because we can all have some form of mental health issue so we must all do our part to normalise discussing mental health.

I encourage you reading this to get support if you need it. When one gets mental health support, it helps them to understand what their mental health condition is and the steps needed to manage it.

Getting mental health services can also offer you a confidential space to talk openly. This is needed if you are someone who does not feel comfortable sharing their issues with others.

Nigeria is certainly opening up and there are several organisations that offer support for your condition. Here is a list of some more mental health organisations in Nigeria.

Final Thoughts

When I consider the word, universal right, what comes to my mind is no exclusion. It means that everyone has access.

That is what I feel about mental health. Mental health support is something that everyone should access whether you are in Africa or America. Whether you are in Europe or Asia. You have a right to obtain mental health support. You also have a right to not be discriminated against and looked down upon for your mental health condition.

To you reading this, I repeat that you should know that we all need to have access to mental health support.

Also, wanting and needing support does not make you weak or “crazy.” It makes you human. We all hurt. We all need some help. We all need to work on ourselves. It’s okay to not be okay.

Happy World Mental Health Day!

Resources

The Mental Health Act: https://placbillstrack.org/upload/SB66.pdf

Mental Health Organisations in Nigeria

Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative:

https://www.mhinnovation.net/organisations/mentally-aware-nigeria-initiative-mani

Mental Health for Youth Initiative: https://mhyinigeria.org

Private Mirrors: https://www.privatemirrors.com

The Mind Clinic: https://www.instagram.com/mindclinic_ng/

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Isioma Ononye

I write about self-esteem, christianity, mental health, women's empowerment and communications. Join my newsletter here: https://substack.com/@isiomaononye