A number of aspects of Nigerian culture have maintained themselves as taboo throughout generations. Any iteration of mental crisis, like the suggestion that a loved one may be battling an unhealthy psychological state is often unacknowledged or stigmatized, and therefore not talked about in the ways that point towards healing. In engaging this topic we are making the deliberate decision to resist any temptation to silence pain or to silence truth behind our experiences.
Some of the most intense moments in my life came from conversations with my parents regarding mental health. As a younger first generation child born from Nigerian immigrants, I have noticed that it is sometimes difficult for our mothers and fathers to validate our mental health battles in comparison to the hardships they have faced during their own lives. To use myself as an example, I grew up hearing stories of how my parents survived through abject poverty, survived through neglect of their fathers, and survived through institutionalized racism and xenophobia when they moved to Canada in the 1990s. Now in raising their kids, they fought to ensure we would never face the same barriers to success and survival, especially in newfound countries that have provided them safety, security, and opportunity. As a first generation Nigerian who has felt the privileges of these provisions, (the safeguards my parents provided me throughout my life), the question becomes how do I speak to my personal, and my community’s mental health within a different context?
My first approach was silence. In trying to keep myself and my loved ones afloat, there were no blunt conversations about my friends who are suicidal, my friends dealing with crippling anxiety, those dealing with homelessness, with sexual assault and post-traumatic stress. There were no conversations about my own depression, my crumbling under the pressure to manage what psychologists define as “secondary traumatic stress,” or “the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another” (National Child Traumatic Stress Network). According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, for individuals experiencing indirect trauma exposure, this can cause “changes in memory and perception, alterations in their sense of self-efficacy, a depletion of personal resources and disruption in their perceptions of safety, trust, and independence.” Though this is frequently discussed within the realm of social work or the experiences of mental health workers, it is not difficult to see how this can apply to those within marginalized communities trying to survive, express empathy, and support one another.
I imagine it is not easy for any parent to deal with the notion that despite all of the love and care they give, their children can still experience trauma that affects them psychologically. One day I came home and tried to explain this to my family and it was quite tumultuous. For some reason my parents questioned my authority to speak over mental health issues – I wasn’t a psychiatrist nor did I have a PhD. It struck me that they felt I needed a graduate degree to speak on the subject, especially considering I completed my bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience and Behavior, where I took an abundance of psychology classes. Regardless, no one needs a degree to recognize the gravity of mental health concerns or to understand the ways it affects our bodies and those of our loved ones. Because I live in a home where I do not have to deal with abuse, issues of intimidation or other forms of violence, I felt safe having this conversation. It is a necessary conversation that I believe can spark change within anyone’s household, no matter how “Nigerian.” When a child, family member, or friend expresses concerns regarding their mental health it should resonate within the ears of their loved ones and/or their chosen family. In spite of the amount of arguing that ensued, I do believe having this conversation in my home triggered a level of awareness that has strengthened my relationships with both my mother and father.
I find strength in the challenges of opening up and having difficult conversations, and in doing so, I try to remind myself to take into account the lives and perspectives of other people around me. My parents lived in a country with only seven federally funded psychiatric hospitals with a total of just over 1,000 beds – none of which are allocated for children or adolescents. As of 2006, the World Health Organization listed a total of 42 psychiatrists in Nigeria, a ratio of less than 0.5 per 100,000 persons. Of the entire federal health budget, 3.3% was allocated to mental health and 90% of this 3.3% went towards mental hospitals and not preventative care. My family members back home had to face emotional hardship without the social infrastructure to support them. They lived in a country that did not prioritize the mental health of its citizens on an interpersonal level but also on a structural level. The lack of mental health care workers and facilities in Nigeria is telling of our difficulties with engaging the realities of mental illness within the Nigerian community. Having an open discussion within our communities, starting with our families and friends, can be the first step towards freeing ourselves through honesty.
In the last week of 2016, my dad had a business meeting in New Jersey and decided to entertain my sister and me for dinner the night before we would depart to Dakar, Senegal for two weeks. While we were packing and hanging out in my apartment in Harlem, he, as many Nigerian fathers do, began to share a deep story from his childhood. It was a story that left me wanting to quit any aspirations I had of becoming a medical doctor and instead co-write a biographical novel on his behalf. At the very end of this personal story he confessed to having suicidal ideations as a 15-year old because of physical and psychological abuse happening in his patriarchal home. He ended by expressing how glad he was that he identified his pain and sought to take care of himself instead of taking his life. In that moment I realized how in tune he actually was with his own mental health at a young age. In this way we are connected. Though he may not be able to fully comprehend the factors instigating my mental health or that of my friends’, he is absolutely aware of how debilitating things can be for anyone. This confession solidified his acknowledgement of the existence of mental health crises, including for those who grew up in Nigeria. Had we not had difficult conversations about mental health in the past, I do not know if he would have ever opened up to me and my sister in this way.
There is mental illness in our community: schizophrenia, depression, post-traumatic stress, among others. We need to bridge the communication gap within our community because our mental health is not a myth. We need to be honest with our families about our wellness so long as we feel safe doing so. We need to engage our power to seek help when we feel we need it. We need to be able to identify when our loved ones are powerless in seeking that help and we feel that they need it. Because sometimes it truly is life or death, we need to be vocal about these issues.
“Secondary Traumatic Stress.” Secondary Traumatic Stress | National Child Traumatic Stress Network – Child Trauma Home. N.p., 24 July 2013. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.
WHO-AIMS Report on Mental Health System in Nigeria, WHO and Ministry of Health, Ìbàdàn, Nigeria, 2006
Omoyeni is a graduate of Columbia University ’15 who studied Neuroscience and Behavior, and will be starting medical school this summer. Omoyeni is an afrobeats enthusiast, really enjoys cooking, and loves to travel!