Mental health disorders in Nigeria are widespread. The federal neuropsychiatric hospital in Lagos estimates that 21 million Nigerians suffer from mental illnesses excluding about 30 million unreported cases. Still there is significant neglect of mental health in the country, and those who evidently show symptoms are largely stigmatized. African Health Magazine’s Aisha Salaudeen spoke with one of the organizations championing mental health awareness.
Following the urgent need to create awareness around mental health in Nigeria, Mentally Aware Initiative (MANI), the largest youth mental health network was established in 2015. MANI is a not for profit organisation concerned with eradicating the stigma attached to mental health and illness in the country. Recently awarded the 2017 Nelson Mandela – Graca Michel Innovation awards in mental health, MANI connects persons managing mental health disorders with mental health experts.
Being a diagnosed depressive, Ugo Victor, the founder and director of mentally aware initiative was inspired by his
condition to start up the initiative. “I have a personal stake on this issue, and I saw this as an opportunity to create a movement that will fight the establishment, one guided by cultural and religious stereotypes against mental health and illness.” He told us.
MANI educates the public on mental health through mass and social media advocacy. “Our main goal which is the most important is to create a stigma-free society where people can assess mental health care as needed.” Ugo said, speaking on the objectives of the organisation.
In just over two years, MANI has more than 500 trained youth volunteers across the country advocating for mental health through outreach to schools, prison and hospital wards. “We have monthly online campaigns with over 15 million impressions. We also provide online support group for persons coping with mental illness and suicide intervention/support” Ugo said speaking on the projects embarked upon by his team. According to him, the organisation has chapters in Abuja, Port Harcourt, Ibadan and Lagos – with one starting off in Bayelsa soon.
On cultural and religious practices that dismiss mental illness as something spiritual or non-existent, Ugo remarked that these deeply entrenched beliefs have made openly discussing mental health challenging. “Our people have a mindset about mental illnesses shrouded in myths and mystery with them constantly using the spiritual to explain it away” he said. “It’s been a challenge teaching and re-orienting people but one that’s been worth it. Because, thankfully, we are seeing some improvements and of course the increasing discussion surrounding mental health these days which didn’t exist before us” he added.
On the goal for this year, Ugo says MANI hopes to create a network of students across universities in Nigeria advocating for mental health awareness. The idea according to him is to train them in mental health first aid so they can easily recognize symptoms of mental illness and what to do about them early. “We are also working to push the review of Nigeria’s mental health act. This is why we started a campaign to get 1 million signatures for the revision of the bill and act. We are also running a #365PersonalitiesOfHope campaign, which involves getting celebrities or important personalities sending out a message of hope/encouragement to people living with a mental illness daily” he told us.
On what the future holds regarding advocating for mental health awareness in Nigeria, Ugo says mentally aware initiative is enthusiastic. “As the mental health discourse improves, mental health advocacy is going to improve and hopefully the government will have no choice than to catch up, but even if they don’t, we are willing to pioneer the change we are working hard to see. The Internet and Social media has made connecting with experts in all fields way easier, therefore we are positive that it can only get better” he explained.
MANI’s presence is a welcome development considering the below optimal attention given to mental health and illness in Nigeria. The organisation is undeniably making a difference in Nigeria’s online mental health space. We cannot wait to see what they become.