Overcoming visual stereotypes in mental health

A couple of years back during the height of the threat that “Boko Haram“ members might invade Lagos, I boarded a vehicle form Osun state to Lagos state. Among the passengers were 3 young men who looked like people from the North. While we were approaching Lagos, I noticed that these young men just became fidgety. The two sitting at the front sit kept looking back at the one at the back. They were seemingly communicating in sign language. I became seriously scared! I started thinking of how to escape from the vehicle in case they made any sudden movement. To make matters worse, they were carrying a small bag which looked even more suspicious than any other thing. I started moving closer to the doorway . Then suddenly, the ones in front opened the bag and brought out…………………………………………………..”oranges”!. It was actually the Ramadan season and the young men who had been fasting were just strategizing how to break their fast while still in the bus. That’s the power of visual stereotyping! Your misconceptions as a result of what is already in your memory could remarkably influence your thoughts and feelings towards people, situations or circumstances. How these things get stored in your memory bank could either be from your own experience or what you have heard from other people who have had such experiences. Our failure to objectively process what we see gives rise to subjective interpretations of the object(s) of our vision which (most of the time) tend to be erroneous.

Generally, we tend to classify people based on their looks. There was a time that being spiritual was believed to be accompanied by a manner of dressing. However, that has gradually changed over the years. We now know that you must “test all spirits”. Even in so-called civilized nations, being black can still be relatively considered to be associated with an increase in the likelihood of the individual being a criminal. In the United States, a black man is more likely to be shot by a white police officer than a white man getting shot. That’s the reality of visual stereotypes. We keep hearing stories of how police officers or other law enforcement agents assault or molest individuals. Most of the time, these incidents are directly related to visual stereotypes.  In the field of mental health, people tend to have a preconceived image of what a person who has mental illness would look like. We store in our mind the picture of the overtly psychotic that we see on the streets as if that is all about mental illness. We watch the distorted presentations of mental illness by our ill-informed scriptwriters on TV and keep these in our memory as if that is what mental illness is.

The fact is that one out of every five Nigerians has a mental illness! It means if there are 100 men in a room, not less than 20 of them have different grades of mental illness! Our wrong focus on our stereotypically determined perspective of mental illness and the mentally ill distracts us from being able to identify those who are actually very ill but still managing to cope. We indirectly partake in the stigmatization of the mentally ill and mental illness. We all end up forcing these silent sufferers to keep their burden to themselves. We force them to even stigmatize themselves! Our misconceptions also make us desire that we keep a significant distance between us and them. We can’t marry them, we don’t want to work with them or even have them around us for any reason. How objective are we? Recently, one of the greatest gun attacks ever in the history of the US was carried out by a seemingly very normal man who did not fit any of the stereotypic profiles of a terrorist or a mass murderer!

The best way to overcome stereotypes is to get information! Stop being ignorant! The most debilitating forms of mental illness can still be managed. Most persons roaming the streets can get off the streets if treated. Coming as soon as possible to the hospital is a sure way of ensuring a more favorable outcome. There are so many options in medications, psychotherapy and other social interventions that can be deployed to restore the mentally ill to their previous level of functioning. If it’s you, get help! If it’s someone you know; help them get help!!

As we exit 2018, I want you to begin to reflect on the number of persons you’ve seen living with mental illness around you and truthfully identify individuals whom (for one reason or the other) you have negatively classified based on your stereotypic mindset and in spite of no evidence for your conclusions (or even specific evidence to the contrary). Stop the stereotype!   Look for someone who has mental illness and show them some love, give them hope, let them know that they don’t have to suffer alone!

Stay Safe and Sane; Help others do the same!!!

 

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Ola Ibigbami

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