Take a Walk in my Shoes: Victor from Nigeria

By Victor Ugo, Founder of the Mentally Aware Nigeria initiative (MANI)

Mental Health in Nigeria

Life is funny. You grow up fixated on a particular path and somehow, somewhere down the line, this path gets scrambled.
You know, like a lot of young people, I planned to make good grades, graduate college, get a job or start something that would grow and help me take care of my loved ones and, in my own way, contribute to the growth of society. Sounds like a solid plan, right?

This was my plan. That was until I was diagnosed with a depressive disorder in my penultimate year at medical school in 2014. During this time, what mattered most to me was facing the immediate challenges and getting through each day. The days turned into years and I’m still here, now a doctor, running my own establishment and a key part of my society.

Looking back, it’s clear how incredibly fortunate I was to have a core group of family and friends who knew what to do and offered me all the support necessary to get help in the early stages and beyond. While mental health is something I’m still dealing with and I have had ‘moments’ in and out of psychiatric wards, I’m definitely doing much better. However, that’s more than I can say for the 40 million Nigerians who don’t have access to mental healthcare services, or a support system – the latter largely borne out of ignorance and shocking levels of abounding stigma.

My exposure to mental illness led me to dig more into the state of mental health in Nigeria, and the more I dug, the more shocking things I discovered. With my medical background and incredible support system, I can say I had a softer landing, but the reality in Nigeria is that so many people have no idea that mental health challenges exist. Mental health issues are often dismissed or blamed on superstitious beliefs that abound in Nigerian culture – you’re either seen to be fine, mad or possessed by evil spirits, or cursed by the actions of ancestors’ past. Generally, if you don’t understand something, it becomes easier to term it a supernatural phenomenon. This is a snapshot of mental health stigma in Nigeria.

Getting Started

I was mortified and very much dissatisfied with the state of things, and I felt there was need for something to be done. While I understood that it was a big task, I also knew that just maybe, all I needed was a starting point. This led me to start the Mentally Aware Nigeria initiative (MANI); a community of young people who are passionate about ending the stigma and discrimination attached to mental health and related issues in Nigeria. A stigma, which acts as an enormous barrier to those desperately seeking help.

At the time, there wasn’t much to build on, but I had the internet, so I did some research into mental health organisations that existed in Nigeria before MANI; mostly to explore why they didn’t make much of an impact and to find out why most of them had shut down. From my research, I realised the importance of sharing my own story first and in doing so, creating a better chance of attracting others (like me), with lived experience of mental illness, into the community I wished to build. The reaction was unexpectedly amazing and it’s what has led me to connect with people who have helped the organisation grow and strengthen – young people like me who have gone through similar situations with varying outcomes, as well as those who identify with our cause and want to do their bit.

Largely, the generation MANI is involved with are youths, and although we recognised the importance of involving everyone across all age groups, we had to prioritise based on resources and feasibility. So, we settled for a two-pronged approach with both online and offline engagement as a means of starting and furthering conversations about mental health. The reception was mind-blowing. Suddenly, we were exposed to people from all over the country and even beyond, not just looking to help out, but identify with us.

And it all started from one point – the action after the desire; a desire to see a country where people are totally aware of how to prevent, identify and treat mental health conditions. A country where stigma is a thing of the past; where mental health is a fundamental part of the healthcare system, where Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) services are universal and effective; where mental health professionals are trained in the best educational institutions in the region; and where top research brings light to the specific issues of Nigeria and is broadly socialised.

Overcoming Adversity and Planning for the Future

So far, MANI is playing a pivotal role in making this happen and the impact in so short a time can be said to be unprecedented. We’re still young (we officially began our activities in June 2016), but our numbers keep growing and our influence along with it. Today, we’re active in four states in Nigeria and are still looking at expanding to more states.

I can’t tell you that it’s been a smooth ride – financial resources to help us scale are a major challenge. So far, MANI has been a self-funded project with at least 80% of the funding coming from myself, and with such limited capacity, we aren't able to maintain a paid staff structure, somewhat limiting our growth and making us overly reliant on volunteers – over 1,000 so far – to pull off our planned projects. It’s extremely difficult to create impactful programmes in such an under-resourced environment, but I’m grateful for all the help we get from well-meaning individuals.

Looking back over the past two years, I’m amazed at what we have achieved and even though it’s easy to give up, our actual impact on the lives of thousands of Nigerians, especially younger folks, serves as huge encouragement. I only need to look at what has now become the most active suicide hot-line in Nigeria that has, since March 19th 2017, carried out over 6500 interventions and is effectively run by a trained group of 60 volunteer counsellors.

And it all started from a point; I found a gap by virtue of my own experiences and struggle and decided to do something about it. A lot has fallen into place, and while we hope to be a strong influence in mental health legislation in the country, I’m grateful for how far we’ve come.

Still, an NGO can only do so much, and we need key laws, more funding and widespread reforms of our healthcare system to adequately deal with stigma and access to appropriate mental health services in Nigeria that will serve our growing population. There is so much to say that space and time might not allow, just as there are more gaps to be filled in many areas. As a developing nation fraught with so many challenges, Nigeria is a country waiting for solutions and I dare say that most of these have to come from within. People are more willing to lend a hand when you have taken a step and I hope that my story will not only inspire young Nigerians like me, but young people around the world to step up and change things in their respective societies.


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