…if we are to avoid a mental health crisis in the country, then the time to act is now. It is necessary for mental health practitioners in Nigeria to be vigilant to the psychological aftermath of collective actions, particularly as some symptoms may be covert and manifest long after the event. Researchers should engage in more studies to determine the magnitude of protests and riots on the mental health of people.
“Where ignorance is bliss tis folly to be wise” – Thomas Gray
Collective actions, be it in the form of riots or peaceful protests, have long been a part of human history. Increasingly, much of the world is witnessing large scale protests and riots against systems of leadership, with the aim of achieving specific goals occurring in their different parts. Ultimately, such actions can either lead to a definite alteration in the existing system of governance or stimulate a domino-like effect, which may lead to the loss of lives and properties. Nigeria presents a good example, with a history of collective actions predating the country’s independence. One’s mind easily flashes to the Aba Riot by women in the Eastern Region of colonial Nigeria between 1929 and 1930. A historical event which has been described as one of the earliest protests documented in Nigeria.
Some scholars have argued that the women’s riot signaled the emergence of the feminist movement in Nigeria. Others posit that it was a cultural protest resulting from the defects in their government at the time. While this remains debatable, what is commonly known about the women’s riot was the collective efforts to oppose socioeconomic, and political injustice by the existing leadership. Several other protests and riots are intertwined in Nigeria’s history and aimed at changing extant systems, unfavourable policies, and living conditions. One protest that Nigerians will not forget in a hurry is #EndSARS, which occurred at a time when Nigerians were only beginning to bounce back from the turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic and its adverse consequences.
The #EndSARS street protest commenced on October 8, 2020 and was spearheaded by Nigerian celebrities, activists, and other young professionals. It held across several states in Nigeria and gathered support internationally. Demonstrators comprised mostly Nigerian youths who discounted perceived social class, ethnic and religious divisions to protest the perennial police brutality, and unrestrained activities of the special anti-robbery squad (SARS) – a unit of the Nigeria Police Force composed to handle violent crimes. The protest raised the awareness of the terror and psychological distress that Nigerians face as a result of the SARS unit and called for its dissolution and reform of the police force.
Certainly, there’s no gainsaying the diverse adverse effects that protests and riots have on the emotional and psychological state of individuals. Unfortunately, the focus of attention has revolved around the economic import, and physical and social components of health.
Although this appeared as the main theme for the protest, several other issues were brought to the fore. Common grievances were police brutality, the deteriorating health and educational sectors of the country, the worsening socioeconomic state of Nigeria, increasing corruption, and bad governance. The protest represented different things to different people, but to a large proportion of Nigerians, it kindled the hope for the desired change, regardless of whether they were on the streets protesting or not. However, the hope for favourable change was short-lived, as some other groups of youths saw opportunities in the street protest to unleash mayhem, loot and vandalise properties. This was further compounded by the involvement of the military and the use of ammunition on unarmed protesters on the twelfth day of the protest at the Lekki toll gate, referred to as the ground zero of the “#EndSARS” protests. This left a trail of wanton vandalisation, and carnage across states in Nigeria in its wake.
The knotty question then is why I have decided to write on the #EndSARS protest several months after its occurrence. After all, it is presumed that the worst is over and Nigerians are “back to business as usual”. However, the sequence of events and the obvious disregard by certain significant authorities for the psychological consequences of such actions on Nigerians piqued my interest. Certainly, there’s no gainsaying the diverse adverse effects that protests and riots have on the emotional and psychological state of individuals. Unfortunately, the focus of attention has revolved around the economic import, and physical and social components of health. Nonetheless, if we are to attain the appearance of a balanced society, then strategies that support mental health must be adopted. It will be quixotic to expect people who witnessed traumatic events, such as gruesome killings and mayhem, to remain mentally unscathed. However, there is usually an interplay of factors following a traumatic event before psychological conditions manifest. A few include the personality of the individual, the nature and duration of the traumatic event, existing support systems, underlying health conditions and the presence of other stressful events or previous exposure to traumatic events.
… it is likely that the aftermath of the #EndSARS protest had differing effects on the mental health of people, generally, regardless of whether they were directly or indirectly witnessed. The increase in distress calls to organisations which provided psychosocial support during the days to weeks following the shooting and carnage suggested this.
One event that has and is still taking a toll on people’s mental state is the COVID-19 pandemic. It has heightened mental health conditions and depression has been reported to increase by six to ten times amongst Nigerians. Existing evidence shows that protests and riots, whether violent or otherwise, may adversely affect mental health. The unbridled dissemination of the gruesome images of the mayhem and carnage on social media platforms ensured people across the country and beyond were indirectly exposed. Therefore, it is likely that the aftermath of the #EndSARS protest had differing effects on the mental health of people, generally, regardless of whether they were directly or indirectly witnessed. The increase in distress calls to organisations which provided psychosocial support during the days to weeks following the shooting and carnage suggested this. Similarly, several risk factors associated with poor mental health following protests were identified among Nigerian youths who accessed available helplines.
Consequently, if we are to avoid a mental health crisis in the country, then the time to act is now. It is necessary for mental health practitioners in Nigeria to be vigilant to the psychological aftermath of collective actions, particularly as some symptoms may be covert and manifest long after the event. Researchers should engage in more studies to determine the magnitude of protests and riots on the mental health of people. More importantly, though, is the implementation of concerted actions at addressing the mental health consequences, rather than the usual “talk” and barrage of paperwork. Therefore, it becomes pertinent to establish structures for rapid assessments, psychological first aid, and appropriate referrals following protests. This will require commitment and funding for the provision of available, yet effective treatment, adequately equipped facilities, and motivated manpower. An all-hands-on deck approach should be adopted, right from the individual seeking change on the street to the highest level of government expected to provide a certain minimum degree of good governance to its citizenry. Possibly, what the people need may just be better governance and then the frequency of collective actions will drastically reduce.
Perhaps, the time is yet. In the interim, we continue to carry on with “it’s business as usual”.
Margaret Uddin-Ojeahere, is a psychiatrist and Fellow of the West African College of Physicians.
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