Stephanie Iyimoga

last updated Fri, May 26, 2023 3:12 PM

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Hidden epidemic: Poor mental health management fuels drug abuse among Nigerian youths

By Stephanie Iyimoga
| Updated 15:12 26/05/2023
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"Honestly, I just needed to get out of my head for a while and forget everything," Kate muttered.  

On a crowded night out, we were in a lively street in Wuse 2, Abuja. It was around 11 PM, and people filled the sidewalks. The atmosphere was vibrant. Street vendors shoved their wares to people's faces, and the air was filled with traces of cigarette smoke.

Amidst the bustling crowd, Kate sat quietly in a corner, dressed in revealing attire and no shoes, and illuminated by a single streetlight.

She couldn't have been more than 20 years old, her eyes full of tears, and her speech slurred.

"Is everything alright with you?" I asked, sitting next to her.

Kate said she had difficulty with her university work, relationships and friendships. She had left her school to have fun but ended up in the position I met her in after taking some pills and having too much to drink.

"I was just having fun. Well, to be honest, I've been struggling with depression. It's been really hard to handle, and I feel like I've hit a wall,' she said.

When I asked to know if she had been able to get support, 

"Not really," She said. "I guess I've been keeping it to myself, thinking it will eventually go away. I can't even mention it to my mum because she'll kill me. But, it just feels like too much to handle alone."

A silent battle in the head

In the streets of Nigeria, a silent battle rages on. Not so hidden from sight, the struggle with mental health issues and drug abuse among youths is prevalent and remains a global concern.

While concrete data on mental health problems in Nigeria remains limited, a survey conducted by The African Polling Institute or API concluded that at 55%, Nigerians between 18-35 years have the highest frequency of mental health challenges like depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders.

Another poll by UNICEF found that 1 in 6 young Nigerians aged 15 -24 often feel depressed, have little interest in doing things, or are worried, nervous or anxious.

Peering behind the curtain, we encounter several factors contributing to inadequate mental health management among Nigerian youth. The prominent one is the stigma surrounding mental health. 

The 2020 API survey says 70% of Nigerians believe mental health disease is when someone starts running around naked. 63% thought it is when someone starts talking to themselves, while 55% believe it is when someone starts self-harming.

"This stigma is because of a lot of chainings, forced hospitalisations, violent treatments in many healthcare, religious centres, traditional healing centres or even rehabilitation centres,' said Elizabeth Ita, a mental health advocate and founder of StiltNG, a peer-to-peer mental health support group. 

Ita said another reason for the taint on mental health disorders is "we are prone to being scared of what we do not understand."

Like Kate, countless young people suffer in silence, afraid of being judged or ostracised if they dare seek help. This stigma perpetuates a vicious cycle, hindering open discussions and impeding access to the vital support systems they desperately need.

Limited access to mental health services aggravate the situation in a country with a grave shortage of dedicated facilities and personnel to handle mental health care. Just 250 psychiatrists are catering to its 200 million population. And most people pay out-of-pocket to access care amid a disproportionate distribution of health resources. 

The link

A compelling link emerges between the inadequate management of mental health issues and the rising tide of drug abuse among Nigerian youth. 

"There are people who use alcohol and drugs to self-medicate their mental illnesses or symptoms of their mental problems and as a coping mechanism. Alcohol and drug abuse can increase the risk for mental disorders. it can make symptoms of a mental health problem worse." Said Ita.

"When things are not going on well, there's increased anxiety and a tendency to be depressed. There are a lot of harmful consequences of economic instability on mental health. Depression, anxiety, suicide ideation, attempted suicide, all of these are contributed by hardship in the country."

What youths who take to unhealthy coping mechanisms do not know is that "Abusing drugs does not help in any way because at the end of the, when you're down from that high, your problems will still be there. There are a lot of other coping mechanisms to adopt than abusing drugs," Ita said.

A gloomy future

Nigeria will grapple with approximately 20 million drug users by 2030, a 28.5% uptick from the current 14.3 million captured in the country's 2018 National Drug Use Survey.

The co-occurrence of mental health disorders and substance abuse is a cruel entanglement, as the presence of one worsens the other, creating a vicious cycle that prevents recovery and perpetuates a downward spiral for these vulnerable young individuals.

The consequences of poor mental health management and drug abuse among Nigerian youth are widespread and troubling. Firstly, substance abuse poses severe physical and psychological health risks, with long-term implications for overall well-being. 

"Substance abuse can affect your physical health. There's a link between your mental and physical health, so if you're weak in body, your mind is weak and vice versa. It can also affect your academics because it's difficult to concentrate," Ita said.

Another long-term effect of drug abuse is the difficulty of stopping. 

"When someone is trying to wean off drugs, there's something called withdrawal syndrome. Being in that phase can cause mood disturbances or depression, which can make recovery difficult, so there's a high tendency for the person to relapse into substance abuse. It is advisable to not even start," Ita said.

Furthermore, strained relationships with family, friends, and peers become commonplace, further isolating individuals and hindering their ability to form meaningful connections. This isolation makes them more vulnerable to the harsh realities of crime and violence, putting their safety and security at risk.

The path forward

Breaking the silence and eradicating mental health stigma is crucial to addressing mental health challenges. We must foster an environment encouraging open dialogue where young Nigerians can seek help without fear of judgement.

Additionally, investing in expanding mental health services and resources is essential, particularly in underserved areas. 

Adequate funding and training for mental health professionals and integrating mental health education in schools can contribute to early intervention and prevention.

And having a sound support system is essential Because "we all need someone to reach out to when times are tough. Whether they are friends, family, co-workers," Ita said

However, she cautioned: "Remember that you're the most important member of your support system. As much as we need people to help us when we're down, it is very  important to realise that we also need to give ourselves love and extend ourselves that courtesy by either practising self-care, setting boundaries, developing coping mechanisms like journaling, strolling and meditation."

By embracing these measures and working collectively, we can pave the way for a brighter future, where Nigerian youth can navigate their mental health challenges with resilience, breaking free from the clutches of drug abuse and reclaiming their well-being and potential.


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