Mental health: Hidden pandemic and fate of Nigerian workers

In what looked like a scene from a tragic movie, a young man climbed a pedestrian bridge at Maryland area of Lagos; thereafter he dropped the bag he was carrying on the floor and started removing his clothes. Typical of Lagosians, pedestrians on the bridge walked past him; they do not care what he was up to even though the scene appeared strange.
Done with his undressing and to the surprise of the onlookers, the strange young man took a leap and flew off the bridge and hit the BRT lane with a thud.
Fortunately, there was no oncoming vehicle in the process; therefore, his suicide attempt was foiled by mother luck. At that point he was subsequently picked up by passersby and taken to a hospital for treatment.

Another scenario

However, according to media reports, another young man by the name, Sodiq Aremu, was not as lucky as the case cited above. He had strolled towards the waterfront at Elegushi Beach in Lagos and before any person could say ‘Jack Robison’, Aremu had jumped into the lagoon. According to Mr Benjamin Hundeyi, the spokesman for the police in Lagos, before rescue could come, he had drowned.

Many stories such as the two cases involving young working age Nigerians above have featured regularly in the nation’s media in the recent times.

Analysing the trend

Today, the average Nigerian worker is faced with hostile working environment, poor remuneration, spiraling inflation, family and social pressure.
These factors expose the workers to painful situations that test their patience and push them to the brink of suicide or other actions associated with mental health challenges.

Mr Adebisi Peters, a film maker in an interview with a national daily recounted how his work environment and poor income made him to suffer from depression.

“I was getting money but I did not have enough money for my production. So, I just had to continue to hustle and cater for myself, my mother, and brother, but it was more like I’m useless,” he said.
According to Dr Walter Mulombo, World Health Organisation (WHO) country representative to Nigeria in a recent media report, said that globally, no fewer than 700,000 people commit suicide annually, with 77 per cent of the cases occurring in low and middle-income countries.
But mental health challenge transcends suicide. It includes anxiety disorder, psychosis – a type of mental disorder in which a sufferer can hardly differentiate the real from the imagined.

Others include bullying and physical violence disorder, eating disorder which manifests in body image, mood disorder otherwise known as depression, substance abuse and addiction.
According to a review by one of the national dailies, there has been an upsurge in suicide especially among young people in the past 12 months leading up to the 2021 report.

The news medium noted that no fewer than 51 persons comprising male and female took their own lives within the period. This represents an increase of 17 cases when compared to 34 recorded in 2020.

According to Prof Taiwo Obindo, president, Association of Psychiatrists in Nigeria (APN), no fewer than 60 million Nigerians are suffering from mental illnesses.
“Only about 10 per cent of them were able to access appropriate care. We are left with more than 90 per cent who are unable to access care and this group is called the treatment gap for mental illnesses,’’ Obindo said.

Most of those at the receiving end of mental health crisis in Nigeria belong in the working age population which is daily faced with the dilemma of how to meet their daily needs, in addition to other family and social pressures.

UNICEF says this is thrown up by a survey it conducted in countries across Africa and Asia for those aged between 14-24 years and 40 years and above.

“One in six young Nigerians aged 15-24 years say they often feel depressed, have little interest in doing things, or are worried, nervous or anxious,” Dr Geoffrey Njoku, communication specialist, UNICEF Nigeria said in a statement with regards to the survey.

Similarly, about 64 per cent of Nigerian employees are at risk of burnout, a condition caused by excessive and prolonged stress, says a new report from a survey conducted by WellNewMe, a health technology company.

WellNewMe works with governments, businesses, civil society and local communities to improve population health and reduce costs and losses associated with non-communicable diseases.
Mental health experts say unhealthy environment and poor working policies work against the mental health of Nigerian workers.

In a recent media interview, Dr Olayinka Atilola said the high unemployment rate in Nigeria has made employers of labour to create an unhealthy working environment for employees. Atitola is a consultant psychiatrist at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, Ikeja.
“A lot of Nigerians are employed in what we call precarious jobs and many employees work overtime and beyond the standard regulation time,” Atilola said.

Addressing the scourge

Psychiatrists say mental health challenges can affect employees in a number of ways including relationship with co-workers.
According to them, it could also hamper productivity and lead to loss of man hours as affected workers spend a lot of time in hospitals or other places in search of cure, care, and support.

They argue that to address the situation and save the worker from mental health challenges such as depression, the government must ensure that relevant workplace safety laws are properly enforced.

One of such laws is the Section 17 sub-section 3 Paragraph B and C of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999.

It states that, “The state shall direct its policy towards ensuring that conditions of work are just and humane, and that there are adequate facilities for leisure and for social, religious and cultural life.”
The law further stipulates that it is the duty of the employer to ensure that the health, safety and welfare of all persons in employment are safeguarded and not endangered or abused.”

A psychologist, Dr Yemi Atibioke, said addressing mental health problems in the country require the contribution of every stakeholder, including employers of labour, landlords, parents, other family members and governments.

A consultant psychiatrist, Prof Taiwo Sheikh demanded more investments in mental health from government at all levels, non-governmental organisations, and the private sector.

According to him, this would guarantee the availability of quality mental health facilities and services for workers and others in need of them.
He said in addition to properly funding the existing ones, efforts should be geared towards establishing new ones to ensure that every Nigerian had access to mental healthcare and support.

“When you look at mental health programming within Nigeria, traditionally, like anywhere else in the world, it has been poorly funded over the years.
“Most states in the country do not have a functional psychiatric hospital, while our few existing psychiatric hospitals are dilapidated and we have very few specialised cadres,” he said.

Not paying due attention to the mental health of workers would only spell doom for the country. It would only be a matter of time. As counseled by Sheikh, “Failure to take people’s mental and emotional wellbeing seriously would lead to long-term social and economic costs to society.”