Growing up in a country where mental health was often neglected, wasn’t really acknowledged, or wasn’t openly discussed had its challenges. For example, I remember a time in school when I was having trouble focusing because I was being bullied by a group of girls. The whole thing started during a science class when my teacher, suspecting that I was daydreaming, singled me out to answer a question.
Nervously, I flinched and stumbled over my words, and the answer I gave wasn’t the correct one. From that day on, the girls would make fun of me and call me names. It seemed like light teasing, but it always got to me. I remember trying to confide in one of my aunts, but she seemed more interested in knowing what question the teacher had asked me, why I had answered incorrectly, and why I hadn’t been paying attention in the first place.
In this cultural setting, phrases like “mentally ill” or “emotionally unstable” were virtually non-existent. Instead, people with issues in this area were simply labelled as “mad” or “possessed“, without considering the nuances of mental well-being. The overly simplistic viewpoint led to a distorted understanding of psychological health, with only the most extreme cases of insanity recognised as valid reasons for seeking or receiving help.
If only complete breakdowns deserved attention, this meant that anything less severe would be neglected or overlooked, which would further entrench a culture of stigma, fear, and misunderstanding surrounding mental health.
The “high bar” set for recognising and accepting mental health struggles resulted in individuals frequently grappling with their challenges in silence and isolation.
Nigeria has undoubtedly made significant efforts to improve the conversation on this topic; however, there is still a long way to go. It remains concerning that around 60 million people, or roughly a third of the population, experience some type of mental distress with many lacking adequate access to appropriate care.
The situation is quite different in the UK. There appears to be a growing trend of people using the “mental health card” to evade responsibility when they are caught doing something wrong. This phenomenon seems to be particularly noticeable during highly publicised crimes or when public figures, whether respected or not, face accusations of immoral or criminal behaviour.
The BBC broadcaster, Huw Edwards was one who was accused by some of invoking such a card. At the centre of a sex photo scandal, he was alleged to have paid a “vulnerable” teenager for explicit photographs.
Even though it was revealed that the Welsh journalist had battled “bouts of depression“ for two decades, his mental state was not directly implicated in the actions in question. Nevertheless, significant backlash and public disapproval arose from the fact that his mental health received the same level of attention as his questionable actions.
One of the issues that arises in such situations is the tension between acknowledging mental health challenges and addressing the material consequences of an individual’s actions. While it is critical to understand and empathise with someone experiencing inner struggles, there may be a perception that focusing on mental health in these cases may overshadow the material harm caused by the individual’s behaviour.
A few years ago, a young man named Jonty Bravery, diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), shocked the world when he threw a six-year-old child from the 10th story of the Tate Modern building. After being detained by members of the public, he immediately absolved himself of responsibility, stating, “It’s not my fault; it’s the social services’ fault.” He wanted to express that he had been making efforts to communicate his developmental disability to others, but he felt ignored and not taken seriously. As a result, he believed he had to take drastic measures to highlight his condition. He further explained to the police that he sought media attention as a means to raise awareness about the disorder.
So, it leaves one wondering whether his actions were truly a result of a diminished mental state or whether he was simply trying to make a point, which itself suggests a certain level of control over his own mind.
While it is important to understand an individual’s cognitive, psychological, or behavioural state when such incidents occur, it is also just as important not to fall into oversimplified cause-and-effect narratives. Attributing negative actions solely to mental health conditions perpetuates stereotypes and misconceptions about mental illness, and it hurts those in this category, especially if they do not engage in the same harmful behaviours.
I frequently encounter similar cause-and-effect claims concerning poverty and crime. And there are numerous debates about whether poverty causes crime or vice versa. Attributing crime solely to poverty is problematic because many others living in the same, and sometimes even worse, conditions do not resort to criminal activity. This serves as another example of why we must be cautious not to trivialise the complexities of human behaviour.
So I remain torn between two undesirable scenarios: living in a society that more or less completely disregards mental health as a valid explanation for any challenges, and living in one where mental health issues are overused and invoked frivolously.
As with everything, there has to be a balance. Balance leads to healthy, sustainable progress, while imbalance leads to chaos, confusion, and regression. Societies that value mental health as much as physical health and have robust systems in place to care for their citizens’ well-being create good environments in which people can truly live and flourish. This is why it remains necessary to challenge and confront individuals or ideas that contribute to problems and misunderstandings in this delicate and complex area.
Striking this balance between genuinely acknowledging mental health struggles and preventing their exploitation for ulterior motives is a challenge that the Western world must confront.
Ada Akpala is the founder of Different Voice Initiative. It is a space for learning to help people navigate in this world of uncertainty and disorder.
The articles we publish on Psychreg are here to educate and inform. They’re not meant to take the place of expert advice. So if you’re looking for professional help, don’t delay or ignore it because of what you’ve read here. Check our full disclaimer.