The recent trend of depression-induced suicide reached a new level in Nigeria yesterday, March 19, when a yet to be identified doctor jumped off the Third Mainland bridge into the lagoon. The man reportedly ordered his driver to stop the vehicle, dashed out of the car, and made for the lagoon while his driver was still trying to come to terms with the sudden behaviour that had come over his otherwise calm boss. Before anyone could reach him, he had jumped over, and into the world of waters below.
The report of the doctor’s suicide is the second report of such in under 42 hours after a final year student of the Ladoke Akinola University of Technology, Ogbomoso, committed suicide in the early hours of Saturday 18th March. The disappointing part of the story which foregrounds the difficulty in tackling such depression-induced deaths was the comment of an unnamed friend of the deceased who remarked with a tone of finality, “Adediran couldn’t have suffered from depression” because he was “funny and lively”. For the record, being funny and lively is not remotely connected to having sound mental health. In fact, in the advanced stage of depression, suicidal people often use the lively and happy face when around people to hide a deeper psychological injury. But sadly, this is the type of comment that follows virtually every case of suicide in this part of the world.
In a deeply cultural and religious Nigerian society where such an awkward death caused by suicide is never taken as a possible an aftereffect of mental disorders, it is not surprising to see people linking suicide to witchcraft, also described as “asasi” in Yoruba culture. While the possibility of such a cause cannot entirely be ruled out due to the deep connection the Nigerian society shares with religious rites and the belief in metaphysical powers, the fact that it cannot be scientifically proven makes it unreliable.
These sad events, however, most importantly, push towards formally recognising the fact that depression, which is often the cause of suicide and very much on the increase, deserves greater attention and should be made a mainstream discussion. The taboo placed on such discussion due to our ritualistic beliefs has only led to the death and loss of more lives in recent times.
Depression affects about 48 million Nigerians, but many are unaware of exactly what they are battling with and are also unwilling to get help. The flawed notion that Nigerians do not get depressed does not help either. The story of Leo, a Nigeria man who is battling chronic depression, puts in better perspective the Nigerian reality about depression. Leo explains that while chatting with a group of friends about a month ago, the subject of depression came up. He was sad and stunned when his friends brushed it off as a non-existent issue for Nigerians, without the slightest inkling that he himself was battling depression and had attempted suicide twice.
For a long time in Nigeria, suicide has been associated to those who are believed to be either accursed or societal mediocres, and as such, the best these people ever get is sympathy – posthumous sympathy.
For Leo, just like many other Nigerians suffering the same fate, he cannot bear the thought of an open discussion of his problem because of the label his story and identity are bound to attract, even from friends. In Nigeria, depression is akin to insanity. Simply put, and you might as well be called a “mad man”.
There is also this very awkward belief that depression is not one of the realities of Nigerians. The fact that there are only 12 psychiatric hospitals in a country of over 180 million people tells one the belief is mainstream. Hence, the limited provision for such cases.
Relatives often brush aside the obvious warning signs, cheekily giving their “come on, snap out of it, life continues” comment. But it is not everything you can snap out of; depression is definitely not one of those things you can just snap out of. It is in no way connected to mediocrity, neither is it confined or limited to a certain class. The rich and well-to-do have been shown to be more in danger of being depressed than the poor. Social media with its grand filtered reality is making it even more complicated. It is high time we changed the narrative around depression in Nigeria. Mental health is central to a sound health.
This story of Leo conjures the common reference when Nigerians talk about insanity as spiritual manipulation. When this was mentioned to Leo, he laughed knowingly. It is the way Nigerians have been conditioned to think; to both assert and look for spiritual revelations where common sense and knowledge is required.
The beginning of a journey towards reducing the frequency of suicides is very simple, as we get to hear from Leo, “I think the more we talk about this, the better.” Because the truth is, “mental disorders know no race or nationality, and it is certainly not a spiritual issue.”