Africans and Mental Health

by Rosie R.

Why do we Africans treat the issue of Mental Health like its Leprosy? I too am a culprit, despite my Blue Cross Blue Shield statement which shows the many psychotherapy and psychiatry services I have received in the past year. It took me having a nervous breakdown and two Emergency Room visits to convince myself that something was seriously wrong.

Back home, there are so many social and cultural factors that hide mental health problems in individuals. They are either kept secret or treated within the family circle. I remember when I was in my pre-teen years, my siblings and I used to describe my sister as “moody”. She could change from happy-go-lucky to severely depressed in minutes.We just called her “moody”. Thinking back on those days, I think she may have been Bipolar.

In high school, I remember only one classmate who described herself as Bipolar.She has lost her mother recently and that really sent her in a tailspin. You could never know what mood she was in. She was either very surly or extremely happy – with hardly an in-between moment. Other than that, I have never heard it mentioned.

Why am I writing about Mental Health issues? Well, ever since my pre-teen years, I have had panic attacks. They usually have the same symptoms of heart attacks. My mother took me from doctor to doctor but because my twelve-year old mind could not fathom what was going on physiologically, I just said to the doctors “my heart stops from time to time.” So for two decades and then some, I went undiagnosed.

When I came to the US, anytime I had a panic attack, I would drink a glass of vodka – straight up – having never drank or smoked in my life, alcohol abuse became another issue. Now I know treating panic attacks with alcohol is a no-no! Four years ago, I started to see a counselor on my anxiety and panic attacks. She told me social, financial, educational pressure are all contributing to my stress and stress leads to anxiety, anxiety leads to panic attacks, panic attacks lead to depression. I was all alone in a foreign country with no help from anyone so it was understandable, she said. I did not take her seriously. After all, other Nigerians are struggling alone. None of them are running to shrinks. So I stopped going to see her.

When I got a new job, in a another state, my anxiety level went up with the onset of a stress at work … so the anxiety led to panic attacks, panic attacks lead to depression, just like the counselor predicted. When I say depression, I don’t mean the type you see advertised on television. I don’t mean the “boo-hoo-hoo… I am sad,” type of depression. It was the “I am not getting out of bed and I just want to die,” type. It got so bad that I would go to bed at night and pray that I would not wake up. And when I did, I would get pissed at God. I didn’t eat, to sleep I took any kind of sleeping aid I could find, my work suffered, my social life suffered.

Of course no one in my family knew any of this. I was a Nigerian, an Igbo woman. We are tough people for God’s sake! We don’t believe in this psycho-nonsense. So I sucked it up and went on with my life -until I almost died. Til today, I don’t know if I knowingly took all those pills with all that alcohol but God saved me for a reason. I won’t go into details on the events of that night because it seemed like someone else was in my body.

I finally talked to a psychologist who added Major Depressive Disorder, my growing list of disorders (Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Panic Disorder). My primary care doctor placed me on one anti-depressant after another, all of them making me feel worse. Finally, I saw a psychiatrist who put me on Zoloft and finally, that worked. In fact, it worked so well that I had an overwhelming sense of wellbeing. I even planned a birthday party for myself and invited everyone I knew. I thought life was perfect.I started multiple projects, went on spending sprees…whether or not I could afford it. Even if I couldn’t, shebi God would provide. One day, I talked to a nurse practitioner at the hospital I worked in. She agreed to visit with me. Then she told me I was Bipolar. At first it did not sink in. She explained that my antidepressants were making “too happy” or “Manic” to the point of behaving recklessly.(Well, that explained the non-stop partying and my recent DUI arrest). She placed me on medication to deal with my Mania.So, now I had a new diagnosis – Bipolar I Disorder or Manic-depressive.

Okay…let’s see…I took Ativan for anxiety and panic attacks, Zoloft for depression, Trazodone for depression and insomnia, and Lamictal for my Bipolar. I am a walking pharmacy.

When the seriousness of my diagnosis finally sunk in two days later, I became suicidal. How can I live like this? How can an educated successful young woman like me become “mentally ill?” I have to take these for the rest of my life so what kind of normal life can I have? How do I tell my family? How do I tell anyone? The fact that my psych nurse practitioner said this usually happens to people with high IQs did not make me feel better. She said that some researchers believe sometimes the brain cannot handle all the thoughts and information people like me are able to take in at much faster rates than normal. I told her I would rather be retarded than have a high IQ and be Bipolar.

First, I told my uncle who is a priest and a clinical psychologist. His reaction was that of shock and disbelief. Then he recommended prayer. I was surprised because being that he was well educated on the issue as a psychologist, he thought prayer would rid me of my “problem.”

Next, I somehow, managed to tell my sister everything. Bless her heart.She said, “Honey, I have known you all my life and you are the most brilliant person I have come across. You can beat this thing with mind over matter. Don’t underestimate the power of your mind.” The she recommended a good old fashioned trip home to “get me back to basics.”

I am taking her advice to go home sometime this year. And I am taking this whole thing one day at a time. Who knows? Maybe next year, another doctor might tell me this whole thing had been much ado about nothing. Maybe I am just homesick. So if anyone has had any of these problems, please send me a note. I just want to feel like I am not the only “crazy” naija person out here.

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BT November 13, 2007 - 6:28 pm

I am really moved by your courage. As a Nigerian, I know how judgmental we can be about certain things – yet your piece was shockingly honest. Even though I have never been formally diagnosed with a mental health problem, I have reason to believe I am bipolar, and have battled more addictions than I care to remember. I have had to learn to be careful of self imposed stress. As Nigerians we have a tendency to be competitive high achievers. And as someone with a high IQ, you will have a desire to want to prove it to the world. That is natural, and I’m sure it will happen, in its own time and probably in unexpected ways. I believe one should use medical drugs whenever they can help us, but there is also something to be said for regulating these issues from the root. Just because you are Igbo, does not mean that you should be under such severe stress that you get panic attacks. Redefine success for yourself. Let it include, some measure of peace, and tranquility. I love what you wrote about yourself in your introduction. You determine a persons worth by how much they love others, and how dedicated they are to self improvement. How wise you are. I wish you and your beautiful mind the best – I can already tell, that you are a blessing to this world.

Does It Really Matter? April 21, 2007 - 11:57 pm

Rosie, first of all, you're not crazy. Second of all, you're not the only one out there. My aunt has been diagnosed with Schizophrenia. Sometimes, I think she is okay, but other times I think she is not. Maybe I only think she is okay because I am in denial. She's currently on zyprexa, and I pray for her everyday.

Mental illness is like any other illness, but at the same time, it isn't. As Naija people, we tend to be superstitious, you know. And yes, I'm Igbo too. It's not like we are thinking someone might have done this to her, but at the same time…when does it stop being medical? When does it start being spiritual?

It's confusing, you know. God help you. God help my aunt and God help everyone in this situation.

Remain Blessed, and may you find what you seek in Jesus' name, Amen.

Reply April 14, 2007 - 5:08 am

Darling. Honesty is good for the soul. Mental health is a difficult subject anywhere in the world. Although mental health should be treated as any other kind of health issue, it is not.

A broken arm is easy to see. Cancer takes its toll and people develop empathy for the cancer patient. With mental health, ignorance makes many of us fearful when in reality just about every family has someone who suffers some form of mental illness whether it is treated or untreated.

I am glad that you are seeking help. However, I must warn that you must become your own best advocate. Remember that doctors do not take all the medication themselves, they are only practitioners. You must speak up when something does not agree with you even if you sound like a whiner.

Yes. Take a healthy holiday. One country is as good as the other. However if Nigeria is the one that will help you gain perspective, enjoy.

Stay out the bottle and the shops. No point dealing with mental health issues, alcohol withdrawal and being broke. That is a deadly combination.

No one gets cured from a mental health illness. You simply learn to manage it so that it does not disrupt your life or keep you from enjoying a full and productive life.

Do what you have to for your own well being. Be careful not to dwell on it too much. No one feels happy 24/7. The same can be said for sadness.

Feeling better does not mean that your emotions will be in perfect balance. You will still feel all the ups and downs that all human beings do.

Get out and enjoy the world you live in. Live within your means. If you have to find new friends to share your healthier outlook, do so.

Enough said. I wish you good health and a good life.

Anonymous April 13, 2007 - 5:36 pm

rosie…what you need is a healthy dose of praise and prayer at Redemption Camp! Maybe when you come to Nigeria you can take a trip there and you will understand what I mean. In the meantime I would advise you to put on a Cd and play inspirational music to yourself to help you relax. It works wonders I tell you and helps you.


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