In Nigeria, widespread ignorance fuels perceptions that people with a mental illness are somehow cursed or possessed by demons. Inadequate psychiatric care is also a problem. Many patients are left to roam the streets or are sent to churches or spiritual houses, where they suffer abuses in the hands of healers, witch doctors and other charlatans.
Some, mostly young, Nigerians are fighting the stigma of mental illness head-on. They are boldly talking about their conditions. On youth blogs, in online discussion forums and via social media, they’re encouraging other young people youth who have endured years of stigmatization to come out and seek help. One of them is 24-year-old editor and writer Adebola Rayo. She was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and decided to go public about her condition. This is her story as told to Nicholas Ibekwe.
Since I was a teenager, I knew for sure I had a problem. I’d have days, weeks, of depression, not able to function properly. Or I’d get into rages and try to hurt myself, smash things. It was really ugly.
But the stigma that surrounds mental illness in Nigeria kept me far from a psychiatric hospital. I was scared people would label me ‘mad’, as we say here. I was scared I wouldn’t be treated normally. I didn’t know how my boyfriend would take it; I didn’t know how my family would take it – I didn’t know how people who know my family would take it. All those things kept me away from seeking treatment – until I could no longer deal.
I tried to kill myself by overdosing on an old medication of mine, amitriptyline. My boyfriend took me to the hospital, and I was admitted.
The pysch ward
I spent about five days in the psychiatric ward, and it was hell. I was unconscious when I got there and woke up the next day in a room with seven other patients. About four were schizophrenic. The lady in the next bed, she would stay under my bed, and that just freaked me out. Patients talked to themselves all through the night and I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t get better if I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t get better if I was in a constant state of panic – a worse state than before being admitted.
This was the first my family knew something was wrong. But my sister and I agreed not to tell my parents because we didn’t know how they would take it. They are of a different generation. I wasn’t sure my mother wouldn’t take it to be just a ‘spiritual’ problem.
Eventually, I told them. They took it pretty well. My mom is a nurse. I didn’t tell them about the suicidal thing. I told them about the condition, that I was on medication and in therapy and that it was pretty much under control.
I didn’t think I was going to talk about it, at least not soon. But in the hospital ward, things I saw made me realise the problem is more pervasive than we think. I met a lot of young people in the psych ward – people who had graduated from my university, a few undergraduates and somebody who had dropped out. These were people who were young and should have had their lives ahead of them.
“Not the kind of thing you put on your BB status”
It makes me laugh when people say that I’m strong, that I have courage. I’m not strong. I don’t have courage. It was just about wanting to shut people up and their misconceptions. It was just about wanting people to see that: “Hey, you think I have a fabulous life, but you have no idea of what I’ve been through, or what people go through every day.”
That’s why I spoke out. I mean, if I had stopped to think about it, I probably wouldn’t have spoken out then. It was a bit too fresh. I was less than two weeks out of the psych ward when I did that. I just wanted people to shut up with their negativity and lack of understanding. I wanted people to hear the perspective of somebody they think is like them but who understands what can push somebody into suicide.
After I spoke out, I got a lot of messages – emails, direct messages on Twitter – from people who were going through the same thing. Some I had known before though never knew they were going through the same thing. All had one thing in common: they were going through hell and were glad somebody spoke about it.
It was worth it: if it could help one person or help one person to help another person. My mother said: “This is not the kind of thing you put on your BB status and on Twitter.” I just smiled because I had already done it.
For people going through this, I would say get professional help, and get it really fast. I can function so much better now. For anybody going through this, don’t be scared. Just go to the hospital and get some help.