Recently, I was confronted with the persistent reality of stigma in my practice of psychiatry.
It isn’t a Nigerian or African phenomenon.
We still experience negative attitudes from (some) people who have limited or distorted knowledge about mental illness. In spite of the prevalence of mental disorders across populations, some individuals still find it difficult to show any understanding of the nature of mental disorders.
Anyone who has a brain could breakdown with a mental illness! Refusal to bring the person in for treatment ASAP could lead to long term untoward consequences.
When we step back from standard care because of our poor understanding, we stand a chance of prolonging the duration of untreated mental illness which is a major risk factor for recurrence even when treatment is now made available. Mental illness is as real as malaria! It is manageable (even with the potential for complete remission) if treatment is commenced early and appropriately.
I was invited to assess a male adolescent who needed my expert intervention. After the initial chit-chat, I decided to invite the young man to see me at my clinic in our teaching hospital. The dissenting voice of his mother really challenged my sense of reasoning. She vehemently pleaded that she doesn’t want her son to be seen in the “Mental” health department. I tried to let her see the reason why it was inappropriate to be having a psycho-therapeutic engagement in an improper setting (the emergency unit) filled with distractions. She insisted that she will never allow the boy to come over to our clinic. She pleaded with me that she wouldn’t mind me seeing him in a private hospital irrespective of the cost implications. She cringed at the mere mention of the word “Mental”. I had to work out an arrangement outside my conventional clinic setting (still within the hospital).
This is just one out of many times I have had to deal with the reality of stigma towards the mentally ill, the status of being mentally ill and the setting of care for the mentally ill. Unfortunately, as mental health professionals, we also have our occasional dose of direct/indirect stigmatization from people including other health professionals. I have had to see some of my clients in rather eclectically unconventional settings to break the barrier of their self-stigma.
The reality is that the practice of psychiatry is still bedeviled with stigma. The use of the word “Mental” among Nigerians has a different connotation from its conventional meaning. The phrase “Yaba-left” and the word “Aro” have both taken on a different interpretation within the lexicon of Nigerians. These are names of places that have been given derogatory interpretations concerning mental illness.
I am primarily a medical doctor. However, I have additional training that qualifies me as a psychiatrist and a clinical psychologist. My core arrear of practice is in child and adolescent mental health. I feel challenged at times that I can’t comfortably introduce myself as a mental health professional. I seldom introduce myself as a psychiatrist outside my interactions with health professionals. This is due to the misconceptions about the practice of psychiatry and what it means to be a mental health practitioner.
The word “Mental” isn’t a negative thing! It is simply an adjective that qualifies anything concerning the mind. “Mental Health”, “Mental illness”, “Mental Faculty”, “Mental process” are all phrases regarding the “mind”.
There is nothing bad about the word “Mental”. The misrepresentations and misinterpretations of mental illness and related issues are majorly due to ignorance and half-truths peddled by misinformed persons. A lot of people within the general populace are illiterates when it comes to mental health matters. That is why mental health professionals always emphasize Mental Health promotion which is achievable true giving information to people. The more informed we are, the less likely we are to misuse the word “Mental” and other related words or phrases.
Let us all make it a point of duty to get more information about our mental health this year!
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