Every Nigerian knows at least one story of a left-handed child who was scolded and beaten into becoming right-handed. Deviations from the cultural norms are consciously and subconsciously treated as unacceptable, even when there’s scientific evidence to support its normalcy. If you magnify the treatment given to lefties by a power of ten, then you’re close to understanding the stigma around mental illness in Nigeria.
Childhood is a stage that makes or breaks people especially in regard to mental health. It was the former for Mr Nwabueze, who has been living and thriving with ADHD – attention deficient hyperactive disorder:
Q: People aren’t exactly moved to consult psychiatrists, could you tell us how you got diagnosed?
Mr.N: You’re quite right. People don’t usually talk about mental illness in Nigeria. They feel like the black man should not have mental illnesses. I was very lucky to have an uncle who was a psychiatrist; and as children, he was always watching us to see if we had anything. So that’s how I got diagnosed with it and he started helping me handle it. So far, so good.
Q: Not a lot of people know about ADHD, are there any tell-tale signs, intrusive thoughts etc that people can keep in mind? Not that we’re encouraging self-diagnosis.
Mr.N: Well, it’s not a ‘popular’ mental illness. I remember when I got diagnosed my parents were asking ‘are you sure he doesn’t have some foreign mental disease?” There were some stereotypes associated with it. That is why I think I’m very lucky because he (my uncle) explained that my diagnosis didn’t mean I was mentally disabled, only that my attention span doesn’t last long—attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
You know, it’s a disorder that typically affects boys. It shows itself between 9-15. They show signs of not being able to hold attention for a long time, and so it can be easily noticed. But above that age mark becomes tricky because it takes the form of other symptoms. So the tell-tale sign would be to observe your child’s attention span. An attention of 4-5seconds is a sign. There’s no need to panic anyway, it’s easily managed.
Q: You mentioned ‘stereotypes’, can you elaborate?
Mr.N: Yeah, there’re a lot of stereotypes! Given where we are—Nigeria. People don’t really talk about their problems, much less their mental disorders. Heck! We don’t even see psychiatrists when we are depressed, not to talk of when you have a child with a mental illness that he has to take medications for. From being chained, to be sent for deliverance in a Cele Church. Those who were not as lucky as me ended up that way. The African culture where we try to shy away from the fact that we are just as fallible as any race in the world, with depression and disorder and things they can’t understand and handle. Instead of looking for appropriate help, they take other measures.
Q: Let’s talk about medications for ADHD, could someone manage without them?
Mr N: The thing is ADHD really has an effect on adolescent boys. When they enter adulthood, the progression of ADHD slows. But if as a child medication is not administered, it actually gets worse as you come of age and brings all sorts of symptoms. Looking back at my own journey, I think people will better manage ADHD if use the medication early. If I hadn’t taken the medication I did, I would have had issues with school and doing things as an adult. The progress has been slow but the medication is very important, because the later symptoms can be so unpredictable and make adulthood difficult.
Q: Alright, but are there any behavioural therapy resources that also help?
Mr. N: yeah, I think the central behavioural therapy that anyone who has ADHD can use is the beautiful power of talking about your problems. That was the foundation of my therapy sessions with my uncle. He sort of made me feel very comfortable in my own skin, because back then I used to have very terrible panic attacks especially when I lose attention. I think ‘oh there you go again’, ‘you’ve started again’, ‘you’re losing attention!’ and I became concerned and didn’t want to talk to anyone about it. But when he (uncle) made it easier for me to talk, it was serious stress relief. The triumph starts with recognising that you have an issue, but knowing you can overcome.
It was really terrible back then, I used to feel like people were playing drums on my head and causing me to lose attention. I used to feel so bad. But he made it easy for me, and the medications made it easier for me to put my thoughts together without serving up complicated word salads. You need to talk; then the medications.
Q: Thank you so much for sharing this with us, any key advice/information you want to leave our readers with?
Mr N: Yeah! I have tons. First of all, ignorance is a disease that should be treated as a sin! We have to break the chains of ignorance due to religious, cultural principles that hold us down in Africa. We feel like we’re different; we’re not. Psychological problems know no colour or race, it’s blind. Everyone has issues and we have to grow beyond running to religious houses or shrines to solve them.
Technology has given us so much. We’re seeing what’s happening in the Eastern and Western worlds, no matter the religious hegemony, they are moving. Even with all the criticisms that Islamic movements have, there is a Sunni part of their beliefs that thrives in Saudi Arabia; their citizens no longer suffer. I don’t know why Africa has decided to hold on to mediocre ideas. The best we can do is to liberate our minds from teachings that cloud our judgements.
We are truly grateful to Mr Nwabueze for sharing his story. It is out hope that the information and stories we provide concerning mental health empowers more people to take charge of their mental health; and reduces the spiral of silence around this topic.
Feel free to let us know what you think about this article in the comment section.
Stay healthy. Stay happy.
Esohe Iyare, a DHI volunteer writes in from Lagos, Nigeria