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MENTAL HEALTH: MYTHS, STIGMA AND AWARENESS.

WhatsApp Image 2020 07 07 at 42150 PM

Dr SONAIKE M.D

“Youths obey the clarion call; let us lift our nation high.

 Under the sun or in the rain, with dedication and selflessness.

 Nigeria's ours, Nigeria we serve.”

We hurriedly chanted as we rushed back to our platoon officers to pick our posting letters. It's been an eventful three weeks at the NYSC orientation camp, Ipaja Lagos and it's time for a year of wearing the green khaki and responding to greetings like corper shun! Even though I had never been excited about this scheme, I looked forward to serving my nation in one of the choicest place of primary assignment. I joined the queue, alongside other members of my platoon. Next in line, I received my posting letter, dashed to a corner and nervously skimmed through. My eyes ran through all corners of the letter and I couldn't pick one word. I calmed myself and started afresh. Boldly written at the top left of the letter was FEDERAL NEURO-PSYCHIATRIC HOSPITAL, YABA, LAGOS, popularly known as “Yaba left”, the choice I dreaded. “Where did they post you?” asked a friend. I responded, hoping it wasn't as bad as I thought. In no time, we had gathered in clusters, comparing each other's letters. “No way! Yaba left? , who did you offend?, mad people will welcome you from the gate, you better change your place of primary assignment (PPA). ”those were words my ears were filled with in a few seconds. My hopes further dwindled. As bad as some others claim their letter was, if we were to exchange, I was certain no one would pick mine. Dejected, I took my letter and reluctantly dragged my box out of the gate as I hid my tears behind a fake smile. I skipped saying goodbye to the rest of my friends because it came with the usual “where is your PPA” and I've had enough pity party to last me the entire service year. “You cannot serve in Yaba! We have to change it. So NYSC didn't see any other place to post you out of all the hospitals in Lagos?” My mother lamented as she paced around the house making several calls. I spent the next couple of days at home researching, contemplating and asking for people's opinions, 90% of which came with the usual “don't go to Yaba left o, change your PPA.” I held on to the positive 10%, prayed and was convinced to go. With the hope left in me, I braced myself for the journey ahead. It will be a great experience anyways, I convinced my parents.

This is a hospital known for treating the most severe cases of mental illness, which are mostly aggressive, with popular belief that they inflict bodily harm on their caregivers. Even as a young doctor, I still could not imagine what to expect. “Is this Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital Yaba?” I asked the gatekeeper politely as I walked into the premises. “Corper shun! Yes, this is Yaba. Welcome, that's the way to the admin” he said, pointing in the direction of the administrative block. I admired the serene environment as I made my way towards the administrative block. So where are the “mad people?” I was curious, where are those bundled in chains? There was none!

I was received by the elegant medical director who was pleased to sign my letter as she warmly welcomed me to the hospital. I was thereafter directed to the head of clinical services for my rotation and was asked to resume at the emergency. Emergency ? Hay God! I was posted to the war front. “Perhaps I need to remind them of my fragile frame” I thought to myself. As I began my duties at the emergency, I saw patients, with their relatives, move in and out of the hospital in droves. The few displaying aggression were professionally handled by the healthcare and crisis intervention team. The overall work ethic was indeed remarkable. I settled in smoothly and discharged my duties to the best of my ability.

My experience was a pleasant and memorable one. I was privileged to interact with people from all walks of life with different forms of mental health challenges such as anxiety disorders, personality disorders, and depressive illnesses from traumatic life experiences, emotional disturbance from rape and domestic violence, schizophrenic illnesses, mental and behavioural disorders from psychoactive substance abuse, organic mental disorder due to underlying medical condition etc.

I saw patients who walked in with no hope, but left hopeful, patients getting better as they began their treatment, relatives hiding the illness to avoid stigma, most patients presenting late to the hospital out of ignorance and/or shame, others taking their medications appropriately, functioning well and attending their follow-up clinics religiously.

I had a total mind shift, better understanding of mental health and life lessons, some of which I'll share below.

Contrary to popular myths, mental illness is not just “mad people” roaming the streets. It is not a stigma. Mentally ill patients should not be abandoned and avoided like plagues. Just like every other illness, it can be managed. With early presentation, prompt management and compliance, patients can function well in the community, live normal lives and contribute to the society.

Secondly, no one is immune to mental illness. It is not an illness that affects a selected few. Anybody can have a mental breakdown. As long as we are humans and we go through various issues of life, no one is spared. In as much as, some forms may be avoided e,g use of psychoactive substances, some other traumatic experiences are beyond human control and response to such differs among people. We all just hope life doesn't put more than we can bear on us.

Finally, our mental health is our responsibility. Keep a sound and healthy mind as much as possible. Life has it's ups and downs, call for help when you’re drowning, you can't be rescued if no one knows you need help. Mental illness is not a personal failure, don't struggle in silence.

We all know at least one person who is battling with a form of mental illness, we can help by increasing awareness in the little way we can, tell a friend to tell a friend about the facts of mental health, use social media platforms to spread the truth, avoid stigmatizing mentally ill patients, show kindness and empathy to those who break down mentally and encourage early presentation to the hospital for adequate medical care.

I am convinced now that Psychiatry is a great specialty and I will love nothing more than to become a Psychiatrist.

Mental health needs more light and more unashamed conversations. Play your part.

Dr SONAIKE M.D

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