Beyond its devastating economic implications, the COVID-19 pandemic puts at risk individual and collective health, emotional, and social functioning, health experts have warned. The outbreak, which has now affected virtually every country across the globe, is causing widespread concern, fear, and stress – all of which are considered natural and normal reactions to the uncertain situation.

Particularly, the imposition of unfamiliar safety measures – including stay-at-home orders, quarantine, and isolation – that violate personal freedoms, large and growing financial losses, as well as conflicting messages from multiple online sources, are among the major stressors that contribute to widespread emotional distress and increased risk for mental illness.

Such a public health emergency is most likely to have psychosocial effects on the health and mental well-being of individuals, causing insecurity, anxiety, confusion, emotional isolation, or stigma, which could translate into a range of emotional reactions such as distress or psychiatric conditions. Moreover, individuals with pre-existing mental illness may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of widespread panic.

As concerns grow over the perceived threat of the ongoing public health disaster on mental health, Ventures Africa had a Twitter live chat with Jolade Phillips, the communications head of Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative (MANI), during which we discussed likely psychosocial disruptions from the COVID-19 outbreak, how to stay mentally healthy amid the pandemic, as well as dealing with the stigma associated with mental illness.

Ventures Africa (V.A): MANI is a leading NGO championing mental health in Nigeria. Tell us about the vision driving the initiative?

Jolade Philips (JP): We are MANI and what we do is try to spread awareness about mental health and we also provide psychosocial support for people with mental issues. The vision started in 2016 when our founder was diagnosed with depression and he looked around him and a lot of people didn’t understand and he was lucky to have friends who knew what to do. So he was like “if I as a medical student could not get people around me that really understood this, except for my friends, how much more the average Nigerian?” So we just wanted to replicate the kind of support he had around him for other people.

V.A: As mental health advocates, what is the most common thing you hear from people living with mental health conditions?

JP: From our own work, when you speak to people living with mental health challenges, what we realize is there’s a lot of stigmas. Growing up, when you hear someone has mental health issues the picture that comes to mind is a naked person walking across the street. It’s difficult for you to have access to the help you need if you have a mental illness because of stigma.

V.A: The perception that people have of mental illness as basically just being depression, neglecting others like PTSD, and anxiety. How are you helping to dispel this misconception?

JP: At MANI, we try to use online media and go to physical places to educate people. Online via Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, we try to focus on educating people about mental health and its several challenges. Usually every month we pick a particular mental health theme that will be discussed to improve people’s understanding about such matters.

V.A: So what kind of mental challenges seem to be prevalent among Nigerians?

JP: I think number one is anxiety. Generalized anxiety disorder is something that over time people seem to report a lot. Then the next one in line is depression.

V.A: In light of the coronavirus pandemic, a lot of governments have been forced to take drastic measures which are meant to keep us safe. But they limit our contact with people and hinder engagement with others. Given the circumstances, a lot of people will have to be home by themselves which I understand could also be a trigger for mental health problems?

JP: For so many people, work or leaving home is like an escape so being alone for a long time is not even healthy for them. Being stuck in the house which you are not used to can be bad for them. Even though you have your medications, are still trying to talk to your therapist online, it’s (being home) still a bit of an issue.

For some, social media is like an option for escape. But then you might have to limit yourself on the amount of time you spend on social media because the more you’re exposed to different information about the ongoing pandemic which you don’t know if it’s true or not, that might add to your anxiety and make it difficult for you to cope. So it’s best to draw up a schedule and focus on a particular news source like the NCDC. You wait for their daily update by 11:30 pm.

V.A: Have you seen a spike in calls for help since the start of the pandemic and how can people prevent developing mental challenges at this unfamiliar time?

JP: Yes we have. We’ve had to set up a website to cater for people’s needs after we saw a 70 percent increase in the number of people that reach out. For example, if on a normal day we receive 20 calls, we are getting an extra 17 calls every day. So we had to expand our team of psychosocial support and then we put out helplines for people to call in to.

So yes we saw a spike, a wild increase in the number of people reaching out, and then I think it is crucial to filter the kind of information you are exposed to. As you said, people are anxious. Nigerians are living on the edge right now and the truth is it may be too much for you to handle on your own which is why we have a team of counselors that can help you. You can reach out to us.

So filtered information is important. If it feels too much, try to reach out to someone that could help. Try to maintain social connections. Even if you are staying alone, try to reach out to friends through video calls, chats, and all of that. Even though you are physically isolated, don’t be socially isolated from the entire world. It’s just not safe.

V.A: Negative stereotypes and stigma hinder those with mental challenges from getting help. Why do you think there is a stigma associated with mental issues?

JP: At MANI, you can reach out anonymously for help. We don’t even ask for your name. There are people that reach out to us using the name “Spiderman” for instance. Usually, the counselor we assign to you will probably never know you or request for your picture or anything.

Stigma is a very difficult thing for people to handle. We have instances of people saying we should not call them at a particular time because people around them do not know they’re reaching out for help. So you can decide which time you want the counselor to reach out to you.

It can be very difficult but eventually, it’s your mental health. Nobody will know what’s going on, nobody would be able to help if you don’t speak up. I’m not putting pressure on people to reach out, you can speak out on your own terms. But remember that if it ever gets overwhelming, you will need help. If you reach out to us, you are totally covered, nobody will know because we understand how stigma works.

V.A: So how does it play out in the social context, is culture linked to this stigma in any way?

JP: It’s our culture. It’s what we were taught growing up even in religious homes where they say you’re possessed. Mental health and physical health are what everybody has. Everyone has a brain. If you can’t blame me for having cancer, why should you blame me for having mental issues?

We’re trying our best at MANI to normalize mental health discussion in Nigeria but we can’t do it alone. As individuals, we need to reeducate and unlearn a lot of stuff and belief about mental health, as well as educate others. When you see someone with a mental health issue, your thought should not be that he/she is possessed but that they need help.

V.A: What advice do you have for people who may be afraid or are too embarrassed to get help and how can they connect to MANI?

JP: We have phone numbers that you can just call. And if you are not comfortable about having a phone call, that’s fine. You can also have your session via online platforms. What we try to do at MANI is to make the sessions as convenient as possible, so you’re not under pressure to do anything. Just come to us and say the platform you’re comfortable with. In the end it’s you and your mental health. With MANI you are totally safe.

V.A: How can Nigerians help each other feel more comfortable talking about these issues?

JP: Recognize that anybody can develop a mental illness. The same way you can come down with malaria or fever, it could happen to you as well. Also try and read, learn and unlearn about mental health to understand better because it could happen to you and you’d misinterpret the issue. 

More so, stay away from stereotypes such as mental problems being a white man issue. Lastly, if you ever need help, there are platforms and services that can help freely such as MANI because a lot of people complain they cannot afford such services.

V.A: Is there anything else you’d like people with mental challenges to know or the general populace about mental health?

JP: Just love people and see them as an extension of yourself. Treat them as you would yourself and if you ever need help, reach out to us.

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