Concerned with the rising cases of mental health issues stemming from gender-based violence in Nigeria, a coalition of youth-led nonprofit organisations on Saturday took their advocacies to Waru, a local community in Abuja.
They say rising incidents of rape and sexual violence across Nigeria underline varying mental illnesses as the cause and the major complication – for rapists first, and then, their victims.
Four out of five teenage girls who have been sexually assaulted are suffering from crippling mental health problems months after their attack, recent research found, according to the Guardian UK.
Victims were found to have anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other serious conditions, four to five months after being assaulted.
But the outreach in Waru did not just target victims but the perpetrators too, organisers said.
“We have heard devastating stories of how a man of 50 years raped a three-month-old child. When some of these rapists are checked, they are not normal, they suffer from one form of mental health issue or the other,” said Glory Ukwenga, the executive director, Africana League, one of the non-profit organisations.
The event coincides with the World Health Awareness week, which is held during the first week of October as a way for advocates to educate the public on mental health conditions and reduce the social stigma around receiving mental health care.
The World Mental Health Day is observed on October 10 every year with the overall objective of mobilising efforts in support of mental health.
Cecelia Goshima, 19, a resident of Waru, a community tucked within the Apo resettlement of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), is among about 50 youth that gathered for the outreach.
Ms Goshima, a student, said rape contributes “100 per cent” to rampant cases of mental illness.
“As a lady, if someone forcefully have sex with me, I will be depressed, except I have people that will talk to me through and give me the right information just as these NGOs did this morning”, she said.
“In this our community, there are a lot of incidents of rape and nobody is raising voices about. Even when people are raped they don’t talk about it because they feel they will be mocked and that is the situation here.”
Ayo Adebowale, the executive director, Youth Advocate for Sustainable Development, who also resides in Waru, confirmed the high rate of rape and sexual violence incidents in the community.
“We chose to have this outreach in this community today because it has high cases of young people engaging in all kinds of illicit drugs and substances that make them susceptible to depression and violence.
“This is a community where young girls and children are being raped but they could not speak out because of the culture of silence and discrimination.
“We are here to enlighten them and give the young girls information on where and how they could report crimes for free. When you know where to go when something bad happens to you makes it a lot easier.”
Mr Adebowale also linked rape and sexual violence to mental disorders. “That is why we are engaging the men too because even the rapists in many instances are not normal.”
He said the government should also consider counseling as part of measures in handling rape cases – for both the raped and rapists.
Onyekachi Awakite, who made a presentation for the Environment Sustainability and Development Awareness, said it is important that you consult a specialist at least once in three months to check your mental health.
He said in a community like Waru, asides sexual violence and abuse of substances, stress is also another cause of mental ailments.
“The stress level is always high and this is one of the major issues that affect the mental health of Nigerians. In Waru, the stress level is high because most of them are farmers and know little or nothing about their mental health,” he said.
“In rural communities like this, mental health complications that stem from gender crimes are higher because there is no awareness and restraint against men engaging in the act while the women don’t even know who to talk to when they get abused.”
Mr Awakite also said that the lack of basic amenities and livelihoods contributes to mental health issues.
Several challenges are inhibiting efforts to curb the rising cases of mental health issues in Nigeria.
While precise statistics are hardly available, a survey conducted earlier this year suggested that it could take a dramatic shift for Nigerians to start linking mental disorders to natural causes.
The survey conducted by Africa Polling Institute in collaboration with EpiAFRIC, found that there is still widespread belief linking mental disorders to supernatural causes including witchcraft, demonic possession, and even “punishment from gods.”
Because of misconceptions and links to supernatural causes, many sufferers turn to traditional healers, reputed for applying mundane methods such as exorcisms – beating, roping, and chaining.
Treatments are available, but nearly two-thirds of people with a known mental disorder never seek help from a health professional, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Another challenge is that the laws protecting the rights of mentally constrained people have become obsolete.
One in four Nigerians – about 50 million people – are suffering from mental illness, according to the WHO.
Yet, there is no mental health law in place in Nigeria other than the Regional Lunacy Law of 1958. The law, in content and context, violates the fundamental human rights of persons with mental health and psychosocial disabilities, Ibrahim Oloriegbe, a senator said.
Mr Oloriegbe spoke in early February when the Nigerian senate held a public hearing on a new bill to protect persons with mental health and substance abuse problems. He is the sponsor of the bill.
For more than a decade, the lawmakers have tried but failed to put a mental health law in place.
Medical experts have long described the old law enacted during the British colonial times as outdated and inconsistent with current realities, prompting an age-long movement for its repeal. They said the over half a century-old law looks at mental health challenges from a wrong perspective.
Owoyemi Emmanuel, the chief executive officer, Mental Health Foundation, said the bill when passed will provide a legal framework that will protect people who are mentally challenged at their workplaces.
Mr Awakite also pointed at poor investment on infrastructure and health personnel for mental health care as a major problem. “How many psychiatric hospitals and doctors do we have? They are very few,” he said.