Why are Nigerians so quick to dismiss the mental health of adolescents? 

A protest in Nigeria to stop the stigmatization against mental illness on March 5, 2021. Image via Wikipedia Damilareadeyemi via (CC BY-SA 4.0)

How many children have to die or end their lives before we understand that mental health matters? How long do adolescents have to suffer mental health problems in silence because the average Nigerian elder says they are “just looking for attention?” The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that failure to address mental health problems in adolescents can prevent them from taking opportunities and leading flourishing lives. Children, just like adults, experience issues such as severe eating disorders, trauma, insomnia, and more. So why are we so quick to dismiss their problems? 

Adolescence is a formative period when children’s parents and environment shape their habits, lifestyles, and emotional resilience. There are many factors that could build up or tear down a young person during this stage. When not carefully attended to, physical, emotional, and social factors can permanently scar them and add barriers to future opportunities.

In Nigeria, while there is gradual awareness of general mental health issues, there is still little to no care given to Nigerian children's mental health. This may be because societal attitude “towards mental illness is gravely colored with prejudice and misconceptions,” asserts Torinmo Salau, a journalist with the Nigerian Guardian newspaper. 

Furthermore, mental health issues are sometimes tied to spiritual or religious beliefs, and in some cases, problems can be blamed on “evil possession,” which makes it difficult for people to get the care they need. In a 2020 survey conducted in Nigeria by Africa Polling Institute and EpiAFRIC, 54 percent of respondents believed mental health issues were caused by possession by evil spirits.

Consequences of disregarding adolescent mental health

Adolescents going through mental health issues tend to have poor engagement and concentration in their school life. When dealing with problems like depression or anxiety, a child can isolate themself from others, leading to an impaired social and academic life. Similarly, children may end up taking their lives when their worries are not properly managed or attended to. 

According to the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), “Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 15–19-year-olds. Every year, almost 46,000 children between the ages of 10 and 19 end their own lives — about one child every 11 minutes.” With the Nigerian mentality that there is no such thing as mental illness, the community tends to downplay the negative emotions that children experience. Mental health literacy is “abysmally low amongst” Nigerian adolescents, as revealed in a study by clinical pharmacist Deborah O. Aluh and two others.

But though awareness may be low, mental health issues among Nigerian adolescents are not — they are only under-reported or presented late to hospitals. A study by Pleasure Ogbonna and five other nursing science researchers in Enugu, southeastern Nigeria, identified schizophrenia as the “most common mental illness diagnosed” among Nigerian adolescents. Similarly, mental illness peaks from the age of 18 and is “lowest at 15 years,” says Ogbonna.

For instance, a girl with an eating disorder is more likely to be castigated than helped because of the mindset that she probably just doesn’t enjoy eating. She will most likely never get the help she needs and may not be able to access mental health assistance from a hospital. This is because only 3.5 percent of Nigeria’s health budget is assigned to mental health care, according to Ogar Monday, a Nigerian journalist.  

When parents disregard the mental health of their children, there can be miscommunication between them which can cause conflict in the family. For instance, if a parent cannot accept that their child is suffering from social anxiety, the parent may not understand the child’s reluctance to attend social gatherings, and this can lead to unwarranted disciplining. Also, when an adolescent’s mental state is not guarded properly, it can bring about negative behavior and attitudes; for instance, UNICEF reports a Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) assessment which shows children, especially in north-east Nigerian conflict zones, experience psychological distress, which manifests in aggression, anti-social behavior, and more.  Consequently, some children may destroy their future by engaging in delinquent behavior, and society as a whole may suffer from unchecked mental health issues.

Curbing this situation 

The government cannot continue to dismiss children’s mental health. They should create functioning facilities that can help maintain and control child-related mental health problems and offer them the support they need to live healthy, thriving lives. They, along with NGOs, can take it upon themselves to fund and develop these facilities to help these children when the parents can't provide adequate care.

As for the parents themselves, asking questions go a long way in monitoring the mental health of a child. Even though some children by nature tend not to open up to their parents, some will. When a child realizes that there is a positive space to air their issues, they will feel comfortable opening up about whatever problem they believe worries them. This leaves room for parents to stay attuned to their children's mindsets. Asking questions can also foster stronger bonds between families and even societies.

The author William Chapman once said: “A knife can be pulled out, words are embedded into our souls.” Imagine a child navigating life obsessing over their weight or a child that believes that they are worthless if they display their emotions. As noted earlier, adolescence is a formative age, and whatever we tell our young ones now will reflect in their actions later. Carefully choosing positive, affirming language when talking with youth can help promote the mindset that their mental health matters and raise their emotional intelligence.

Nigeria is a country that is gradually developing in so many ways, including a burgeoning understanding and acceptance of mental illness. This is why it is so important to raise awareness of this phenomenon. It is crucial that everyone educates themselves more on the issue of mental health and how it affects children, then spread the word.

The mentality that adolescents do not go through mental health issues should be discouraged. When we consider the consequences of not attending to our children’s mental state, it is clear there should be a conscious effort to ensure the success of our children. This, of course, should be a joint effort of parents, communities, and the government to safeguard the environment and health of adolescents. 

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