Interview: Nigeria’s worsening socio-economic situation raises cases of depression, drug abuse, says Neuropsychiatrist, Dr Uchendu

by Ajuma Edwina Ameh
8 minutes read

A Neuropsychiatrist and one-time Head, Mental Health Department, University of Abuja Teaching Hospital, Dr. Ifedilichukwu Uchendu, has lamented the lack of attention being given to mental health in Nigeria.

In this interview with Persecondnews AJUMA EDWINA AMEH, Dr. Uchendu, who is also the founder of Centre for Information and Prevention of Mental Disorders (CIPMED), speaks on how the socio-economic situation of the country, government actions and inactions are contributing to the high cases of depression, drug abuse.

Mental health situation in Nigeria
When you talk about mental health issues, the basic truth is that we have not given it the attention it deserves. When you talk about the youths; why there are increased cases of mental health. I divide them into two several areas — nurture and nature. The other category is what I call the biological, psychological, and social aspects of mental health.

The socio-economic situation of the country is getting worse, there are issues of poor governance. Unfortunately, the actions and inactions of those who are supposed to be our leaders contribute majorly to depressive anxiety disorders and suicide attempts.

Another factor is unemployment. The environment is not conducive for the private sector to excel. It’s the private sector that employ more people, but unfortunately the private sector are not given free hand to operate in such a way that they can create more employment. In the government, there are issues of nepotism, religious bigotry, amongst others. Imagine you are talented or graduated with good grades, but because you are not from one religion, a particular part of the country or you don’t have someone at the top you won’t get employed. These are things that can lead to depression.

The way the government of Nigeria is running the country is part and parcel of the increased cases of depression. The Nigeria youths are leaving the country in droves because the system is not working and it has not given them the confidence that things are going to be better. The situation in Nigeria is like George Orwells’ Animal Farm, where he said “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others”, and this is what the youths see.

When a youth sees that he cannot express his potential, he feels he doesn’t have an identity as a human being. The youth will get delusional, and may go into drug use.

In a country like this there is no way you can see people happy. If we don’t want the scenario of youths leaving the country, going into depression, committing suicide, abusing drugs, we have to start working towards having a culture of integrity, honesty, and truthfulness not those who will go into power and steal and expect everybody to worship them.

A lot of people are going into silent depression, silent anxiety disorder, and silent post-traumatic stress disorder.
Social media also contributes to increased cases of depression. Some people see people flaunting money, wealth and others, whether real or unreal, on the internet and begin to think about how to make theirs without even knowing the source of these people’s money. I believe that the family culture matters, if the youths can see their parents live within their means, and not be carried away by what people are flaunting out there.

Youths have to have the culture of contentment. You don’t know what that person did to have that amount of money. A lot of youths are into all sorts of things; yahoo yahoo, rituals etc, just to make money. But those who are well cultured are not moved by all those show of wealth.


Drug abuse in Nigeria
Talking about drug abuse, a lot of youths have tried to find solace by using different drugs to help alleviate or ameliorate some of the stressful situations they are passing through. When youths don’t find a place of solace because what they see in the system is demoralising, they just think of what to take to make themselves happy which unfortunately they are doing themselves because at the end of the day they use these substances and end up damaging their brain, but the problem still remains. This is an area that needs urgent and critical intervention by not just the government, but by the society at large.

Also, when we talk about drug abuse, there are those we call legal drugs and the illegal ones. The legal ones are the ones that are being prescribed or administered by doctors for treatment, but unfortunately some people go ahead to abuse them. Example of these kinds of drugs are benzodiazepine, ketamine, Pentazocine among others. These are analgesics, some of them are used during surgical intervention.

For the illegal ones Indian hemp still remains number one, because it comes in different names; Arizona, Colorado, konk, and there are now synthetic ones that you can not perceive the smell even when someone is smoking it inside. There is also amphetamine, cocaine, heroin, solvent solutions that these youths lay their hands on and abuse.

Another drug often abused by people is tramadol. Tramadol is an analgesic. One of the consequences of abusing tramadol is that it causes seizure, what we call epilepsy. By the time you start having seizure, your cognitive functions will start going down. With time you will not be able to memorise, you won’t be focused.

People also abuse paracetamol, valium-5, and other common drugs. Unfortunately, some of these things emanate from what I call ‘Nosocomial abuse.’ Somebody will go to a doctor and tell the doctor that he or she is not sleeping well, and the doctor will innocently or ignorantly prescribe Valium 5 or Lexotan. Once they start taking it often, they get addicted to it.

There are also cases of some restaurants lacing their foods with drugs to get people who patronise them addicted and increase their chances of coming back for more. So many people are eating foods from these restaurants without being aware. I have eaten food from one of these restaurants before. Immediately I ate the food I knew it was laced with drugs from the way my body system changed. Once you eat it, you may notice your energy level increase or even sexual prowess.

They lace their foods with these drugs; chemicals, opiums, to make customers addicted to their food and make you want more. You keep craving for their food without knowing why. They use it as a bait to keep bringing you back.

Effects of drug abuse
Drug affects people’s mental state in several ways. It affects what we call the cognitive function. Cognitive function is the ability for one to be able to read, write or see something and be able to retain and reproduce it when needed. Ability for one to be able to plan and remain focused. You will find out that these functions are usually lacking in people who continuously abuse drugs. Most of them will not be able to learn even vocational trade. Some of them will not be able to continue with their school because they are easily distracted.

Also, you cannot talk about crime without drug abuse. 99 per cent of people who want to go into crime, will want to alter their senses. Not all of them have that heart, but immediately they take these drugs, it changes their sense of reasoning. So, in crime prevention if we have less of drugs in the society, the police will have less job to do. Some of them go into crime to make sure they continue to get money to buy these drugs.

Curbing the trend
Some government agencies like the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) are trying as much as possible to reduce the supply by going out to look for those that supply them; the traffickers. That will help reduce the supply which will also reduce the demand.

I want to commend the NDLEA Chairman, Buba Marwa, for doing a great job. He might not know what he is doing, but has really limited the dangers and destruction many people could have faced. His generations will never be forgotten because of the great job he has done.

Role of the parents
Role of the parents is very important. If you want to know if your child is into drugs there are a lot of things. Once they start taking drugs, they become more secretive, their dressing and hairstyle may start changing with time. They will also start asking for money they cannot account for. Parents need to also watch their children as soon as they become teenagers. There is a need to know who your children’s friends are. You need to be very vigilant when they are home, know the things they watch and the things they do in their room.

There are other things we have to look out for like when your child goes out and comes back and his or her eyes are red, there is problem. When your child goes out and comes back very late and goes straight to his room and sleeps off immediately and does not wake up until 12 noon the next day, that is a signal that there is a problem.

I believe that parents need to have a knowledge of these drugs and be able to start teaching their children so they can have a knowledge of these drugs before they start associating with people. Try to teach them the dangers of these drugs and what negative effects they cause when taken.

Most of these drugs are introduced to these children while they are in boarding schools or hostels in the universities. A child may be having a problem of sleeplessness and a friend who may be on one of these drugs can offer him or her.

When the child takes it and feels better, he will go for that drug tomorrow when he can’t get little sleep. Some might be stress, and when a friend offers him a drug and it helps him, he will start taking that drug anytime he is stressed.

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