Reporting mental disorders in Nigeria is better, but still needs work
A man, in the prime of life, had his life overtaken by mental illness before taking it himself. This story from The Punch Nigeria is grim and tragic and a reminder that there's a ton of work still to do with mental health awareness in Nigeria.
So let me breakdown how I see this and how we can change things.
First, the facts, as available from the article:
- Chris Woriji, M/46yo- transitioned from military to ministry
- stopped going to church
- spent much of his time alone
- calling everyone a witch for years
- declared "hell fire day" and set himself and his house ablaze
Looks like a psychotic illness to me.
But based on the line, “as if possessed by another powerful force,” it seems to me our Punch reporter here seems to be thinking more of a spiritual cause. Which I find worrying. And not just that line—the whole tone of the piece (minus the nod — thankfully — to mental health near the end) seems to me to seriously consider spiritual attack as a root cause, with religious references sprinkled throughout, right from the headline down.
Two reasons this worries me…
- It means our journalists still don’t get it.
- And that in turn means they’ll continue failing to grasp opportunities to educate people right.
In other words, the problem will persist.
The "everyone a witch" thing? I've seen it countless times, and anyone who's worked in mental health can attest to its frequency. The poor man likely had paranoid delusions, and may have well taken his life as a means of escaping the feeling of terror that they commonly cause.
Paranoid (or to use the proper term, persecutory) delusions are most commonly identified in schizophrenia (which I've written about here), but they're also seen in other disorders, including severe depression and bipolar.
They're also eminently treatable.
People who spiritualise them also try to resolve them spiritually, so it's VERY common that people experiencing the symptoms suddenly become more religious. It's also very common, especially when the cause is schizophrenia, for them to resign from jobs and isolate themselves as they become increasingly distrustful of everyone around them. Sound familiar?
Chris Woriji, at age 46, after just 12 years of service had resigned from the army and transitioned into the military. Maybe he had good reason, although in a reporting fail, no definite inquiry seems to have been made as to why. Perhaps it didn’t raise a red flag for the reporter like it does for me. But what if the illness had already begun then? His sister says the symptoms had been long present (although we're not told how long — another reporting fail)…
I'm not a big fan of armchair diagnoses — it's generally not wise practice to speak with confidence about people who aren't your patients and who you don't have full details on. But I'd be lying if I said a lot of the details here don't feel very, very familiar. And to be clear, I'm not blaming the family here AT ALL. They acted based on the knowledge they had. But what bothers me is precisely that the knowledge they had was so little compared to what's available. And that's why so much awareness work remains to be done…
And every time something like this is reported, it’s a chance to bridge the gap just a bit more, to offer a little extra info on what mental illness is and how it can take life from people — and some respond by taking themselves from life.
I think Punch missed that chance.
To be fair, Punch seems to have improved—I’ve seen worse. But I’m still being critical because I don’t feel like people will read this and leave with: “This was definitely mental illness and if I ever see someone else like this I’ll think healthcare.”
If you work in journalism, would you consider making that a goal, please?
Like, actually make it your goal, when reporting on mental illness, not only to report, but to educate. You may be the only one someone might read and think of someone they know. You may be saving lives.
And if you know anyone who works in the news please feel free to pass this on to them.
We can do better. We need to.