Mental health policy long overdue

A couple of years ago, a pap seller was hacked to death by a mentally-ill man while on her early morning routine sale of her commodity in Mgbakwu town of Awka Local Government Area of Anambra state. The tragedy again revived the debate about the care of the mentally-challenged people in our society.

According to eyewitnesses, the 40-year-old victim named Theresa Obalum was descended upon by her assailant, MmadubuezeOrakwulu, who hacked her to death with a machete. Angry villagers swiftly responded and meted out jungle justice to the attacker by killing him before setting his cadaver ablaze. Mmadubueze, aged 38, was said to have been deported from Morocco on the grounds of drug abuse.

Reacting to the tragedy, the Chairman of Abogu National Youth Association of Mgbakwu, Mr. Christian Chukwuma, said that it was the second time the community was witnessing such an incident in recent months and pleaded with the relevant authorities and the law enforcement agencies to help confine mentally-deranged members of the society in the appropriate places.

It is a regular experience encountering filthy-looking men and women wandering the streets of major towns and cities, some of them appearing half naked, accosting motorists and pedestrians alike.

The recent rise in population with its accompanying social problems has brought greater levels of insecurity and tension on the populace, resulting in an increase in the number of people suffering from anxiety, depression and mental illness. However, what remains of the country’s mental policy has failed to keep pace with the change. The existing mental health legislation is archaic, dating back to the colonial era. In 2003, a bill for a mental health act passed a public reading and was passed by the Senate butfailed to be adopted into law.

The Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), speaking through its former President, Dr. Mike Ogiri, expressed concern over the absence of a mental health policy in the country, noting that such lacuna has left the sufferers of the ailment vulnerable. It has, therefore, resolved to work closely with the National Assembly to pass a comprehensive bill on mental health in Nigeria.This was just as a mental health specialist, Dr. Vincent Udenze, who is the Medical Director of Synapse Services Resource Centre, Lekki, Lagos, revealed that one out of every four Nigerians is living with one form of mental disorder or another. We commend the NMA for its initiative and urge it to follow it through.

The menace of the mentally-challenged citizens has become a worrisome phenomenon that requires urgent attention. Most towns and cities have their own fair share of insane people living among sane members of the public. During the colonial era, asylums for lunatics were established in different parts of the country to cater for all categories of mentally-challenged persons.

Today, many of such institutions have vanished. There seems to be no clear-cut demarcation between psychiatric wards in hospitals and asylums. We, however, know that wards are meant for patients whose cases may be within redemption, while asylums are used to quarantine those who have slipped into permanent insanity.

Some of them that are on the loose look harmless, but there are others that constitute public nuisance along the streets, at worship centres, motor parks, social gatherings and market places. Some beggar-lunatics go violent when denied alms or when the alms fall short of their expectations. There have been incidents of lunatics attacking motorists or smashing their vehicles’ windscreens unprovoked.

It is common knowledge that most of the victims of mental ailment do not have access to modern therapy. Many patients are subjected to undignified treatment, such as being chained to trees or beds, locked in a cage, left without food for hours, deprived of family support and adequate personal hygiene.

Mentally-challenged persons deserve to be pitied and helped. Government at all levels can help. It has the responsibility of ensuring the wellbeing of all citizens, lunatics inclusive. Some mental disorders are inherited, but insanity could also be triggered off by socio-economic challenges. These days, some Nigerians are seen talking to nobody in particular, at the top of their voices, while walking along the streets. Some pedestrians, lost in thought, cross roads without minding vehicular movements. Some drive dangerously. Any of these is a manifestation of mental imbalance.

Psychiatric patients should not be stigmatised. They should be treated as people suffering from any of the numerous non-communicable diseases around us. At the first sign of trouble, patients or their family members should seek medical attention and treatment. However, they should be wary of spiritual homes and herbalists that lay claim to curing insanity by subjecting their patients to all manner of physical tortures as a way of casting out demons in their bodies. Many of such patients have been sent to their early graves through battering.

We call on the various governments to consider bringing back lunatic asylums as a means of curbing the public nuisance that lunatics constitute. There is also the need for public enlightenment campaigns that would discourage our youths from embracing such habits that lead to mental derangement.


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