We have been visiting secondary schools across different local governments in Lagos and Oyo state to train teachers and parents on early identification of mental illnesses, and kids on how to take care of their mental health. This project, sponsored by ACT FOUNDATION kicked off earlier this year and the impact has been terrific.
Few days ago, we had a training for Junior Secondary School students of a particular government school in lagos. I was to facilitate the session with the kids and I had doubts about effectively educating them on mental health. Mental health isn’t a household subject, especially for kids from low income families. The only image that comes to their mind when you mention mental health is that of a naked man walking aimlessly across the streets. Mental health for them, isn’t a household word. The only time mental illness is mentioned in the family, it is as a rhetorical insult; sho ya were ni? (Are you mad?). Sadly, in this part of the world,mental illness is synonymous with madness.
What most people fail to realize is that madness is not a defined mental disorder, but a derogatory word used by laymen for defining/describing people who seem to have lost contact with reality. Loss of contact with reality is a symptom of psychotic illnesses like schizophrenia or acute psychotic conditions like psychosis due to intoxication.
After explaining all of these to the students and trying to demystify the myths and misconceptions surrounding mental health, I asked if anyone had questions. They asked questions about what to do if a friend has a mental illness, how to help, if they should inform their teachers or not. While trying to get them to settle focus after cracking a dry joke that they found funny, I faintly heard someone say ‘Uncle, I have question’. A shy looking boy whose uniform looked funny because of the way he buttoned his shirt raised his hand. He was seated at the last row of the 400-capacity school hall. My first instinct was to ignore him because the lecture had ended and we didn’t want to keep them beyond the time allotted to us by the school authority. I signaled to my colleague to round up with the other students while I attend to the boy.
I smiled at him, expecting a similar gesture from him but I met with a straight face. He didn’t frown but he gave me a serious look that made me feel bad for my wide grin. He held my right hand as he led me out of the hall. While outside, with a trembling voice and a teary eye that exposed his nervousness he said,
“My question is that, what if somebody has a brother that is mad, sorry, that has a mental illness and is at home but he’s making somebody to be ashamed because….. and people are always abusing me because of it, what can that person do?”
I hate that I froze for the first few seconds after he asked his question. I didn’t have an answer. But this shy boy with a teary hazel colored eyes looked up to me waiting for answers. How do you give an answer to shame? How do you tell a boy that it’s not his fault that his brother has a mental illness? How do you tell him that the brother isn’t at fault for having an illness that everyone sees as a source of reproach? The shame that accompanies mental health stigma isn’t logical, there is no explaining it away, especially to a 13 year old boy.
I placed my right on his left shoulder while I explained ways to deal with stigma and shame that comes with mental illness. I acknowledged his pain and I made him understand the validity of his pain. We also discussed getting help for this brother.
Did I help him? I don’t know! After what seemed like an epistle, he smiled and I hugged him. But I needed that hug more than he did because I could relate with the stigma and shame that comes with living with a mental illness. Maybe I cried myself to sleep that night, maybe he also did. Maybe I blame myself for all the troubles I put my loved ones through, maybe he blames himself for having a brother with a mental illness. Maybe I’m scared that I won’t get better, maybe he’s scared that he might end up like his brother. Maybe I needed that hug, maybe he needed it too.
The training continues next week, I hope to see him. I never got his name and I’m terrible with faces, but I hope he says hi when he sees me.
Project Future is a campaign supported by ACT FOUNDATION. For the campaign, we have been visiting secondary schools across Lagos and Oyo state to train students, teachers and parents on myths and misconceptions surrounding mental health, early identification of mental health problems, and how to take care of their mental health.