The tall, well-dressed, dignified looking Caucasian man was on the same F-train with us one fine, sunny day on our way to downtown Brooklyn. With me were my two youngest children and the man found a seat opposite us when someone else alighted from the train. He looked at my children and smiled at my son. My son smiled back at him sheepishly, obviously uneasy at the way the man was staring at him. I wasn’t comfortable either. His smile, however, soon reduced our discomfort and he asked my son if that was his sister with him. Still smiling and as if reminiscing about something, he said, “Girls are pretty little things.”

Then he began to mutter to himself, “Oh I love girls, I love girls.” He looked back at my son, who was by now visibly terrified and laughed hysterically. Looking him straight in the eye he asked, “Don’t you like girls? They’re pretty!” and he started to trace in the air with his fingers the shape of a woman, laughing at the same time. My little boy slid his hands into my mine, holding them tightly. They were all sweaty. A handsome, aristocratic Caucasian man had all of a sudden transformed into an obviously mentally disturbed one right before us, shattering my initial impression of him. My first reaction was fear, knowing that he could be dangerous and could harm us – not because he may want to, but simply because he wasn’t well. Who knew just how serious his case was? The whole train could be at risk of whatever he was capable of. I looked around and observed that other people sitting nearby were moving away from him, also petrified because of his behaviour. The train wasn’t very full and

I thought to myself that if the situation gets very bad, we would get off at the next stop, even though it wasn’t ours. But as I looked at the man again, sadness for him began to replace the fear I was feeling. I tried to imagine what it must be like to be going through what he was; how his illness may have affected him socially and in many other ways and what it must be like to constantly have people react to him the way I had when I had realised he wasn’t too well ‘up there’. Questions about him I couldn’t answer raced through my mind. He eventually didn’t appear to be violent, but then, what did I know? I wondered what his story was. Nobody asks for mental illness and you do not wish it on anyone else. It occurred to me, as I sat on that train, watching the man that we need to understand that. There are many people living with mental illnesses here in Nigeria too – some cases detected, but most go undetected. I have a number of very close friends and colleagues who have one family member or more who suffer from some form of mental illness. It is traumatic for the individuals and the people who love them. It affects everyone close to them.

Trending lately in Nigeria are cases of suicide that have come to light in our society. One very heartbreaking incident was that of a doctor who jumped off a bridge in Lagos. Who knows what he and his family may have had to endure before it all culminated in his taking his own life.  Before we judge or look down on people with mental health conditions, before we laugh at or ostracise them, believing they are possessed with evil spirits or are being dealt with by some evil family member, let’s stop to consider what life would be like if we or someone in our family were to be in their shoes. A Quick Suggestion When a person is diagnosed with a serious mental illness such as panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder, his/her loved ones are dragged through very trying times, but it is a time to support that person with love and more love. Dealing With The Disease Many can’t bring themselves to accept or deal with the trauma, but it is okay to feel shame, hurt, or embarrassment when a family member’s behaviour cannot be understood. In Africa and other developing parts of the world, mental illness is often ascribed to diabolic activity that cannot be identified or proven. Some feel anger towards the circumstances and especially towards the persons diagnosed. Parents of sufferers are the ones worst hit by this situation, as their first reaction is usually to engage in self-blame. Guilt over what they feel they didn’t do or could have done better leads to trauma, pain, shame and other negative emotions. Anguish becomes their constant companion.

Note the following when dealing with a loved one’s mental illness:

  • Remember always that it’s not your fault and you may never have been able to prevent it in any way. Sometimes, it may be derived from a biological component.
  • It is also okay to feel a variety of powerful — and often unpleasant — emotions.
  • A parent facing this challenge (whether in a minor or an adult) with serious mental illness may find him/herself focusing less on the other children. This may develop into some unnecessary sibling rivalry that may worsen the situation when the healthy child, who feels neglected, begins to experience feelings of anxiety and frustration at the extra responsibilities he/she is expected to take on. Try setting up a little one-on-one time with your other children. Tell them how much you appreciate them and need their help.
  • Communication is key for every member of the family. Make it simple and easy for everyone to freely and honestly communicate with one another.

Let us also not forget to pray together and support, support and support some more. In every way we can, in our own little way as a community.

Reference: American Psychological Association.

SI Magazine

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