Nigeria’s long road to repealing Colonial-era Lunacy law regulating mental health

Olurunimbe Mamora
Olurunimbe Mamora

The Nigerian Senate on Wednesday held a public hearing on a new bill to protect persons with mental health and substance abuse problems.

For more than a decade, the lawmakers have tried but failed to put a mental health law in place.

One in four Nigerians – about 50 million people – are suffering from mental illness, according to the World Health Organisation (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 and sponsor of the new bill said.

Medical experts have long described the old law enacted during the British colonial times as outdated and inconsistent with current realities, prompting an age-long movement for its repeal.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.

“The Lunacy law perceives all mental health issues as madness. There is no mention of prevention; promotion; and treatment”, the President, Association of Psychiatrists in Nigeria (APN), Taiwo Sheikh, said.

Long road to new bill

The quest to repeal the lunacy law began in 2003 when a bill for the establishment of Mental Health Act was introduced by lawmakers Ibiabuye Martyns-Yellowe and Dalhatu Tafida. The bill was later withdrawn in April 2009. Four years later on March 20, 2013, the bill was re-introduced but was not passed.

Last October, a new mental health bill was introduced. This time, it passed second reading a month later, after the lawmakers debated the provisions of the bill.

Entitled, “A Bill for an Act to provide for the establishment and regulation of mental health and substance abuse services, protect persons with mental health needs and establishment of National Commission for Mental and Substance Abuse Services, for the effective management of mental health in Nigeria and for other related matters, 2019,” the bill was sponsored by Mr Oloriegbe (APC, Kwara Central).

It seeks to provide direction for a coherent response to mental health and substance abuse victims.

Public hearing

The Senate Committee on Health on Wednesday began public hearing and presentation of memoranda on the new bill for effective passage and implementation.

Hosted by Mr Oloriegbe, the committee chairman, the hearing saw the minister of state for health, Olorunnimbe Mamora, pitted against promoters of the bill.

The minister had asked the panel to “stand down” the bill because it is a private member bill.

He said the health ministry should be allowed to come up with a more comprehensive executive bill. Mr Oloriegbe, however, disagreed with his position.

“We understand your concern sir, but the issue of mental health has become an emergency and should be treated as such”, the senator argued.

“If you check everybody here, you will see that most of us have an underlying mental health issue. “The bill has passed second reading and is now in public hearing. To avoid delays, I would suggest that the ministry should bring their own inputs so it would be added to it.”

Mr Mamora would eventual yield after Mr Oloriegbe’s comment drew unanimous support from advocates of the bill.

Why Mental Health Bill Should Be Passed

Mental health has historically been neglected on Nigeria’s health and development policy agenda. Faced with many challenges, including intractable poverty, infectious diseases, maternal and child mortality, as well as insurgency, Nigerian leaders often overlook the importance of mental health.

WHO estimates that fewer than 10 per cent of mentally ill Nigerians have access to the care they need. The absence of treatment is fueled by poor funding, stigma and poor knowledge of the disease.

READ ALSO: Many Nigerians link mental Illness to supernatural causes – Survey

After the hearing, a number of medical professionals spoke on the urgent need for the passage of the mental health bill.

Owoyemi Emmanuel, the Chief Executive Officer, Mental Health Foundation, said the bill will provide a legal framework that will protect people who are mentally challenged at their workplaces.

He said if the bill becomes law, it would make provision for adequate budgetary allocations for mental health facilities and service providers.

“The budgetary allocation for mental health, this year is just N30 million but with a new act and a mental health commission, the money will be adequately disbursed,” he noted, urging the National Assembly to accentuate efforts for a quick passage and signing of the bill.

Ajeigbe Ayo, a clinical psychologist, wants the law to also tackle quackery in the psychiatric and psychology profession.

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