In June 2015, Leo was diagnosed with Cardiomyopathy, a heart condition which limits the functionality of the heart muscles. Doctors told him he had limited time to live. “I remember just going home and absolutely losing faith. I grew up a person of faith but at that point, I lost it all. So I went home, closed the door, and for two weeks I did not go out,” Leo tells me. He stopped going to work as well. “I just zoned out. It was hopeless. I was hopeless.”
From then on, Leo, a characteristic jovial, lively and charismatic individual began to live a secluded life, folding into himself daily. And in the last week of August 2015, he overdosed on his medication. “I woke up on a hospital bed days later because my cousin had found me,” he says, his face devoid of any form of emotion. Leo went to see a psychologist after he was discharged from the hospital back in August 2015. “After that episode, I knew I needed help, so I started talking to a psychologist. And that was when I realised I was having chronic depression.”
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 don’t get depressed does not help either. Leo tells me 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.
“I remember the story of TeeBillz,” Leo says in between gulps of cold water. “I felt his pain. But then the public was saying, he cannot be depressed. They argue with the theory of Nigerians being the happiest people on earth. I don’t know where they get those statistics from but Nigerians are certainly not the happiest people. Like me, I think a lot of people are putting up a front.” In 2003 an infamous survey declared Nigerians the ‘happiest people on earth, but since then we have retrograded considerably to the 103rd happiest country out of 156 countries that the survey covers. Nigeria is not even in the top five of the happiest African countries.
In April 2016, TeeBillz, the husband of famous Nigerian songstress, Tiwa Savage, made headlines for a social media outburst which included hints of depression and suicidal thoughts. But the public reacted with memes that made light of his suicidal thoughts, inferring that he was weak. And when it was reported that he actually did attempt to end his life by jumping off a bridge, it was still considered juicy news to the media and public. The former reported it without addressing the key issue, and the latter consumed it in like manner. Sadly, this sort of reaction is not peculiar to Nigeria, but one that is typical of this day and age; the age of social media where issues are easily trivialised.
In Nigeria, the common interpretation of mental illness is one of insanity. And no one wants to be referred to as being mentally ill or insane. However, depression can, and occasionally results in insanity. Leo tells me a story of a young woman he met during one of his therapy sessions. “Once I met a lady who had run mad from being depressed. And it was from something as ‘simple’ as a heartbreak,” he says. “She was sinking into depression but she told no one until she went into the street.”
This story conjures the common reference when Nigerians talk about insanity as spiritual manipulation. I mention this to Leo, and he laughs 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. “I think the more we talk about this, the better. Mental disorders know no race or nationality, and it is certainly not a spiritual issue,” he states.
Seye Awe, a psychologist I meet at the Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital, Yaba, has a different opinion on the level of awareness concerning the issue of depression in Nigeria. According to him, Nigerians are now more aware of depression, judging by the increase in the number of depressed patients over the years. “I have worked here for many years and I have seen an influx in the number of depressed patients,” he says. “People are more aware now, thanks to the internet. However, we still have a long way to go,” he adds. He further explains that we do not have enough resources to cater to depressed patients and also laments that psychologists are underrated in Nigeria – a testament to our attitude towards mental health issues.
“In general, Nigerians have a shallow perception of who a psychologist is … every hospital and organisation ought to have a psychology unit, but that’s not the case. This is rather unfortunate because depression will soon become a major illness,” Mr. Awe says, echoing the predictions of the World Health Organization. Statistics by the WHO show that the burden of mental illnesses such as depression is likely to increase so much that by 2020, it will be the single biggest cause of burden out of all health conditions. What’s worse? It will impact developing countries the most, primarily owing to the projected increase in the number of individuals entering the age of risk for the onset of these [mental] disorders.
I ask Leo if he has overcome depression, and how he did it. “I’m still working through it,” he replies. “I do not think that people get out of depression as easy as some make it seem. Every morning I wake up with a realisation that today could be my last. I take anti-depressants to stay on a certain elevated level. But they do not give an absolute relief. Not to mention the fact that my system is becoming immune to them.” He also says therapy sessions with a psychologist help to an extent. But that he tries as much as he can to spend time with family, especially his little nephews. And also stay around people that make him talk. “Half the time, I’m always engaged in a conversation. I barely sleep. For me, insomnia is not a problem, it is a lifestyle.”
He says the reason he does not openly talk about his struggle with depression is because of the social stigma of not being taken seriously. And I get it; it is bad enough when an individual is secretly battling depression and other mental disorders. But to be ridiculed and brushed aside when you do finally speak up on it can be devastating. Another reason Leo has decided to keep mum on this issue is due to the trigger of his depression. “I choose not to talk about it because if I do, I will also have to tell people that I am sick. And I do not want people feeling sorry for me. I cannot stand pity parties,” he says.
Although he will not come out to openly share his story, Leo implores Nigerians to openly share their stories to create more awareness and profound conversations around the issue of depression and mental disorders in general. Living with depression can be exhausting and overwhelming. So many are depressed but they do not even recognise it when recognition is the first step towards recovery. “Everyone has their down time in life but when you are consistently sad, moody, and withdrawn for a considerable period of time over two weeks, there is a chance that you are clinically depressed and should seek help immediately,” says Mr. Awe.
Depression is a silent global crisis that affects about 350 million people of all ages worldwide. And mental disorders are among the leading causes of ill-health and disability globally. But what’s worse than these extensive statistics is our collective response or lack thereof to these issues. As Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Director-General of WHO aptly put it, “Mental illness is not a personal failure. In fact, if there is a failure, it is to be found in the way we have responded to people with mental and brain disorders.”