Late last year, 31-year-old taxi driver Hammed Olojo tried to jump into Lagos Lagoon. He was later charged with attempted suicide, and he was far from alone: An analysis from Nigeria’s Daily Trust newspaper found that 79 people in the country killed themselves between April 2017 and May 2018.
Nigeria currently ranks 15th in the world for suicides, according to the World Health Organization, though comparisons to older data are made difficult by a lack of accurate record-keeping in the country. But while these attempts make headlines day after day, they’re also a warning sign of what could be a far greater crisis to come for Nigeria, Africa’s strongest economic powerhouse.
According to Nigeria’s first-ever National Depression Report …
60 million people — a whopping third of the population — report experiencing depressive symptoms.
Nigeria is by far Africa’s most depressed country already, with 7 million people diagnosed with the condition, according to WHO. In comparison, Ethiopia has 4.48 million, while the Democratic Republic of Congo has 2.87 million with depression.
The National Depression Report, conducted by Joy, Inc., surveyed people about their feelings of happiness and depression across Nigeria’s 36 states. More than 1,000 interviews conducted in all five major Nigerian languages found that 31.6 percent of the population reported symptoms of depression and 27.8 percent reported symptoms of anxiety.
Depression is rising around the world: WHO identifies it as the planet’s leading cause of disability, and found that cases skyrocketed 18.4 percent between 2005 and 2015. But Nigeria has further obstacles: The country has long failed to collect data on the mental health of its citizens, which keeps experts and authorities from developing coherent policies to fix the situation.
“To do well in addressing depression, [many] more studies are required. The data and information available through research are far less than enough,” says Dr. Joyce Omoaregba, senior consultant psychiatrist at the Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital in southern Nigeria’s Benin City.
Nigeria has no mental health laws other than the colonial-era Lunacy Act, which dates to 1958.
But far from being a big issue, depression, like other mental health issues in Nigeria, is shrouded in secrecy. Cultural traditions and social stigmas push many sufferers into isolation and away from seeking help.
For Damola Morenikeji, a researcher with Joy, Inc., stigma is a huge problem. “People can’t come out and talk about facing depression,” he says. Beyond confirming the crisis, he says, the aim of the study is to give people the courage to seek help.
Nigeria has no mental health laws other than the colonial-era Lunacy Act, which dates to 1958 and allows legal and medical authorities to detain those deemed to be mentally unhealthy without many guidelines or processes reflecting a modern understanding of psychiatry. In the absence of laws and effective policies, some turn to traditional and spiritual healers for help.
Dr. Bem Tivka, a clinical psychologist with Neem Foundation — a nongovernmental organization offering psychological support of traumatized survivors of the Boko Haram conflict in northeast Nigeria — says many people suffering from depression don’t recognize it as an illness and opt to visit spiritual authorities rather than medical ones. “Sometimes,” he says, “people attribute their mental health situation to witchcraft attacks.” Others turn to street drugs like codeine rather than medications, which are often unaffordable. Without government and community support, Tivka says, these negative coping mechanisms will continue to prevail. Education — and new laws — is sorely needed.
A 2014 WHO study found that on average around the world, there are nine mental health workers per 100,000 people. That’s not the case in Nigeria: Despite a population of 180 million, there are fewer than 200 psychiatrists in the country — or just one for every 1 million people, according to a 2016 study published in BioMed Central. And, says Dr. Gabriel Onyeama of the Association of Psychiatrists in Nigeria, that’s not just an issue of not enough doctors choosing to specialize in psychiatry. It’s also one of brain drain.
“Many of the psychiatrists we produce in Nigeria end up in developed countries,” he says. For those who qualify and choose to stay, there aren’t enough job openings every year. Before Nigeria can solve its doctor shortage, it must first hold onto the doctors it trains.