Mental Health Act: Better Late than Never
Ann Soberekon, a retired laboratory scientist, was almost lynched by a mob in Port Harcourt following an accusation of witchcraft. Ann was actually suffering from dementia – a condition of the brain characterised by impairment of brain function such as memory and judgment that interferes with doing everyday activities.
The incident led a rights group, ‘Advocacy for Alleged Witches’ to decry the ill-treatment meted out to those with mental health challenges. According to the group, attribution of dementia and other mental disorders is rooted in irrational fear, misinterpretation and ignorance of the cause of disease.
Living in fear of being called names and other forms of stigmatisation is the way people with mental health issues live in Nigeria and even other African countries. With proliferation of knowledge of mental health, some African nations started signing bills to protect the right of people suffering from mental health issues. Foremost among are countries like South Africa which signed the Mental Health Care Act 17 of 2002 on October 28, 2002. In 2012, the Ghanaian government signed Mental Health Act 2012 into law; Zambia followed with her Mental Health Act in 2019 and then in June 2022, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta signed the Mental Health Bill into law.
Nigeria followed suit when on January 5, President Muhammadu Buhari as parting gift gave the country the long awaited Mental Health Act thus repealing the extant law, known as the Lunacy Act CAP 542, of the laws of Nigeria 1964.
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The legislation covers the assessment, treatment, care and rights of people with mental health disorders while also discouraging stigmatisation and discrimination by setting standards for psychiatric practice in Nigeria among other provisions.,
The assent of the law generated positive response with physicians saying the law will afford those in the field the power to work unhindered and also enlighten Nigerians of the dangerous lifestyles that may lead to a breakdown in one’s mental health.
Most noteworthy is that the law is coming after two failed attempts. It was first presented in the National Assembly in 2003 and secondly in 2013 when the National Policy for Mental Health Services Delivery set out the principles for the delivery of care to people with mental, neurological, and substance abuse problems. Needless to state that the Bill could not scale through in those previous attempts.
As they say, it is certainly better late than never. What is left is for those responsible for the implementation is for them to take charge in ensuring that the purpose for which the law was signed is not defeated.
Lawal Dahiru Mamman writes from Abuja and can be reach via [email protected]