Growing Army of Mentally ill Children and Youths in Nigeria

Adolescence and the early years of adulthood can be quite challenging. For many Nigerians, it can be stressful. According to experts, this can lead to serious mental illness if not controlled.

Nigeria just joined the rest of the world to mark the 2018 World Mental Health Day held under the theme: Young People and Mental Health in a Changing world. It was an occasion to see how good mental health allows children and young people to develop the resilience to cope with whatever life throws at them and grow into well-rounded, healthy adults.

Studies have also substantiated the fact that good mental health begins from childhood, while half of all mental health conditions in adulthood are said to begin by age 14, and three quarters by 24. The World Health Organization, WHO, in a report, said that, worldwide, 10-20 per cent of children and adolescents experience a mental disorder. Back home, statistics show that 12 per cent of adult Nigerians will experience a mental illness at some point in their lives. Findings also show that mental disorders are wreaking havoc among young people.

According to statistics from the Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital, Yaba (FNPHY), there is an alarming increase in the number of young Nigerians with mental illness. Currently, the centre sees between 150 and 200 children and adolescents with mental health disorders and 25 new cases weekly.

Factors that predispose them include drug and substance addiction, social media and internet addiction, unemployment, online technology pressures and economic hardship. Long term consequences according to WHO, mental disorders are the single-most common cause of disability in young people.

Throwing light on the burden of mental illness among adolescents, the FNPHY Medical Director, Dr Oluwayemi Ogun, said every week, between 150 and 200, children and adolescents with mental illnesses are seen at the centre while between 20 and 25 new cases are diagnosed. In the case of adults, the hospitals attend to between 800 and 1,000 weekly while emergency cases seen weekly in the facility range between 30 and 35 patients.

According to Ogun, the period of the adolescent was a time of life when many changes occur. For so many young people, it is an exciting time while there may be times of stress and apprehension. Several studies also show that the main cause of depression in Nigeria, especially in youths, is substance abuse. Other causes include economic hardship and even heartbreak.

Ogun, who is also the founding Chief Consultant, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services Centre at FNPHY, traced the increasing burden to what she described as ‘expanding use’ of online technology with its varied benefits that had undoubtedly brought additional pressures with the use of internet both night and day.

Research shows that 75 per cent of young people with mental health problems are not receiving treatment until symptoms reach crisis level and 75 per cent of mental illness start before a child reaches his 18th birthday.

Corroborating her views, a Consultant Psychiatrist, FNPHY, Dr Dapo Adegbaju, who stated that mental illness was on the rise in Nigeria, said the environment is the main factor fuelling mental illness among Nigerians.

“People are losing their jobs, their sources of livelihood. And you know a person who is not gainfully employed is likely to find his way into drug abuse and this leads to mental challenges”, he said

What are the mental health conditions that can affect children and youths?

Children can develop all of the same mental health conditions as adults, but sometimes express them differently. For example, depressed children will often show more irritability than depressed adults, who more typically show sadness. Children can experience a range of mental health conditions, including:

Anxiety disorders : Children who have anxiety disorders — such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, social phobia and generalized anxiety disorder — experience anxiety as a persistent problem that interferes with their daily activities.

Some worry is a normal part of every child’s experience, often changing from one developmental stage to the next. However, when worry or stress makes it hard for a child to function normally, an anxiety disorder should be considered.

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) : This condition typically includes symptoms in difficulty paying attention, hyperactivity and impulsive behavior. Some children with ADHD have symptoms in all of these categories, while others might have symptoms in only one.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) : Autism spectrum disorder is a serious developmental disorder that appears in early childhood — usually before age 3. Though symptoms and severity vary, ASD always affects a child’s ability to communicate and interact with others.

Eating disorders : Eating disorders — such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder — are serious, even life-threatening, conditions. Children can become so preoccupied with food and weight that they focus on little else.

Mood disorders : Mood disorders — such as depression and bipolar disorder — can cause a child to feel persistent feelings of sadness or extreme mood swings much more severe than the normal mood swings common in many people.

Schizophrenia : This chronic mental illness causes a child to lose touch with reality (psychosis). Schizophrenia most often appears in the late teens through the 20s.

What are the warning signs of mental illness in children and youths ?

Warning signs that your child might have a mental health condition are several. You should

  • Look for feelings of sadness or withdrawal that last at least two weeks or severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships at home or school.
  • Be aware of feelings of overwhelming fear for no reason — sometimes with a racing heart or fast breathing — or worries or fears intense enough to interfere with daily activities
  • Look for behavior changes including drastic changes in behavior or personality, as well as dangerous or out-of-control behavior. Fighting frequently, using weapons and expressing a desire to badly hurt others also are warning signs.
  • Look for signs of trouble focusing or sitting still, both of which might lead to poor performance in school.
  • A sudden loss of appetite, frequent vomiting or use of laxatives might indicate an eating disorder.
  • Sometimes a mental health condition leads to self-injury, also called self-harm. This is the act of deliberately harming your own body, such as cutting or burning yourself. Children with a mental health condition also might develop suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide.
  • Some kids use drugs or alcohol to try to cope with their feelings.

How is mental illness in children and youths treated?

Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy or behavior therapy, is a way to address mental health concerns by talking with a psychologist or other mental health provider. During psychotherapy, a child might learn about his or her condition, moods, feelings, thoughts and behaviors. Psychotherapy can help a child learn how to respond to challenging situations with healthy coping skills.

Your child’s doctor or mental health provider might recommend that your child take certain medications — such as stimulants, antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, antipsychotics or mood stabilizers — to treat his or her mental health condition.

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