Nigeria is finally paying attention to depression

- and not a moment too soon

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One of the very first things I heard when I emerged from a three-week contemplative retreat, off technology, was news in my country about suicides.

“We live in a time when everyone is wearing a mask covering depression, anger and sadness,” one of the readers of my daily newsletter said to me in an email. “We focus on everything that we do not have and magnify where we would have loved to be. The news of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide and Kate Spade’s death emphasizes the knowledge you propagate daily with ‘The Daily Vulnerable’.”

The tragic deaths of Bourdain and Spade are not the only suicides that shocked Nigerians. There was also a suicide in a secondary school in Lagos, Nigeria that went viral on Whatsapp – and, every other day, it seems like we have to confront the news of a failed attempt or two.

At the core of the relatively new positive psychology revolution is the old idea of re-framing – the ability to see adversity with new eyes, to find silver linings in clouds of whatever dark hue, and to tell ourselves a different story about reality. Indeed, as its founder Martin Seligman, emphasizes in his new book Homo Prospectus, that’s the only way humanity has managed to keep moving forward – we keep our eyes on making the future better.

So maybe here’s the silver lining in all of this: while we don’t have current data that shows any increase in actual rates of suicide (the closest we have to research on the subject depend on approximations and that includes a 2015 rate of 10 suicides in every 100,000 people), the increase in anecdotes and their effect on the culture have given rise to the most important weapon against depression: awareness.

In the past month, a majority of Nigeria’s public figures have risen up to speak more forcefully about the mother of suicide – depression. This includes one of its most influential musician-entrepreneurs, Banky W; one of its better-known actors, Tonto Dikeh, and next month, Betty Irabor – the woman some have called Nigeria’s Anna Wintour – is unveiling to the public the memoirs of her 7-year battle with depression.

Some may look to the horizon and see despair, but I look and see possibilities.

“There is an epidemic accelerating across the world,” I tweeted in April after a review of the World Happiness Report. “Its an epidemic of unhappiness, anxiety and depression. The best way toy can help stop this spread is to build your immunity – your resilience. Find your life vest. Keep it on. You need it when we need you to help other people.”

The only way this epidemic can be stopped is if societies get rid of the stigma attached to depression, one that ties it to weakness, to laziness, or to dishonesty, people begin to speak openly about this disease and to seek help, and countries begin to take this scourge seriously.

This is made more urgent by the fact that depression, if taken seriously, is one of the problems the wars the world can actually tackle and win.

While meta-analyses of anti-depressant studies this year show that they are, at best, modest in actually helping people, there is huge global evidence that it is treatable in other ways, and that – as the London School of Economics’ Richard Layard hasn’t tired of pointing out – it is costless to treat, with successful models everywhere from Chile to India.

Depression was on track to be the leading cause of disability worldwide in 2020, but that reality arrived three years earlier, according to the World Health Organisation. This happened because the world was not paying attention.

Nigeria’s case is even worse. Our national mental health policy has not been significantly reviewed in almost 30 years. The mental health capacity of our national government expresses itself in silence; we have less than one psychiatrist per 500,000 people, and yet at least 7 million people (a conservative estimate already eightyears old) suffer from depression according to its leading Nigerian researcher.

Yet simple exercises from mindfulness meditation through gratitude journaling, as well as the ability to modify behavior and lifestyle has been proven to help people recover from or prevent depression, taking advantage of two of the environment advantages Africans and Nigerians have – sunlight and strong communities.

How are we going to help Nigerians take advantage of help that is already within its reach? That’s a more complicated question to answer, and it requires government to wake up to its responsibility. But it appears that now, we are crossing the firs and most important boundary, and that is getting Nigerians to take depression as seriously as they do poverty and corruption.

After all, it is nearing the potential to kill just as many people – and here is a problem that we can actually solve quickly. 

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