National Assembly - Pass a mental health legislation in Nigeria.
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Mental Health is a long neglected and relegated topic in Nigeria, it is a subject area that attracts lots of secrecy, superstition, spiritualism and discrimination in the Nigerian society, although the reason for this neglect is widely unknown, some consider the neglect as a religious and cultural issue while others ascribe the neglect to socio-economic factors, after all it is only a comfortable man that can consider his physical or mental health. As such Therapists, psychologist and psychiatrists are considered the exclusive preserve of the bourgeoisies and people whose state of mind have completely deteriorated, for which, there is mostly no help in the hands of the experts.
Nigeria as a nation is home to about 180 million people of different socio-economic strata, about 100 tribes and about 700 languages. Statistics have it that about 21 million Nigerians are living with various forms of mental illnesses, yet only about 15-20 percent of people with mental health issues in Nigeria seek medical assistance, majorly as a result of ignorance, fear of stigma and discrimination, and of course lack of access to mental health education and facilities.
Asides from the dated 1958 Lunacy Act (“the Act”), which deals with mental disorders and disabilities, there is a huge gap in mental health legislation in Nigeria. Although, in 2003, a Mental Health bill was proposed, to repeal and replace the Act. It is interesting to note that this bill for 6 years failed to go through the legislative process before it was finally withdrawn from the Senate in 2009. Some of the changes proposed by the Bill included:
- The introduction of a more appropriate definition for mental illness/health disorders (including the deletion of the reference to lunatic) in compliance with international standards
- The removal of the magistrate’s role in the patient admission decision, requiring medical directors to file application for compulsory admission of persons with mental illness before committing them to involuntary admission; and
- provisions for treatment and bridging a gap that existed in the Act by specifically stating that that treatment is the sole purpose of detention, unlike under the Act where a patient can be detained against his will for the purpose of observation, with or without treatment.
Furthermore, we would like to draw attention to the need for a repeal of section 327 of the very much dated Criminal Code which criminalises attempted suicide and imposes a one year prison sentence upon conviction, even at a time where Nigeria is a signatory to several human rights charter and treaties that require its signagtories to recognize the right of every individual to enjoy the best attainable state of physical and mental health.
Nothwithstanding, we recognize that the government needs to take pro-active measures to protect people from harming themselves as a result of mental illness but retaining the criminalization of attempted suicide is never the best alternative, otherwise every suicide intervention attempt is an exercise in futility.
There are aspirations on the part of key stakeholders in the mental health sphere in Nigeria particularly non-profit organisations like ourselves that the enactment and implementation of a national legislation on mental health will go a long way in transforming mental health in Nigeria as it would create a more educated populace, provide access to adequately funded health care facilities, reduction of stigma and discrimination attached to patients with mental health issues and more importantly the adequate protection of the rights, life and properties of the mentally ill.
Despite the obvious neglect of the mentally ill in the Nigerian society especially with respect to their rights to make certain decisions beneficial for their welfare, inheritance and succession and the age-long maltreatment of the mentally ill, in the form of imprisonment for suicidal acts under the criminal code, the time has come for well-meaning Nigerians to rise up to the occasion, stop paying lip service and demand a legislation that will ensure a number of things including the following:
- support and promotion of mental health awareness and education (including the compulsory addition of mental health education into the curriculum from primary to tertiary level);
- guarantee the establishment, maintenance and adequate fiscal allocation to mental health facilities and rehabilitation centres;
- ensure the provision of the highest standard of mental health related treatments and medications at a subsidized rate;
- put an end to the criminalization of attempted suicide;
- determine the rights of the mentally ill and mentally incapable under varying circumstances; and
- ensuring the protection of the lives and livelihood of the mentally ill.
Mental health is a term that cuts across boundaries, cultures, religions and professions s, therefore, we have initiated this petition which we intend to run for a year and through which we seek the support of more than a million people irrespective of their age, culture, tongue, tribe, religion, and other vices that segregate us, to support this petition which calls for the enactment of a mental health legislation in Nigeria and seeks to put an end to the neglect and the relegation of a subject as important as mental health in Nigeria. Upon the success of this petition, we will be approaching the relevant authorities including the legislature backed by your support to formally demand the enactment of this law that will be a play a key role in the change process for the nation Nigeria.
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