FRSC Nigeria wants to reverse Nigeria, mental health-wise

We need to stop them before they go further

(Photo by Nabeel Syed on Unsplash)

So here’s the latest on Nigeria’s Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC Nigeria) and their poorly thought out and potentially harmful plan for motorists, which I’m going to try to show as dangerous and worthy to be scrapped post-haste.

This is not the first time I’ll be writing about this. I once wrote an entire thread on the issue as well as another post on a similar initiative for the police (link at the end). Others have written about it as well, including, thankfully, non-medical Nigerians—which is a testament to the growing awareness surrounding mental health and illness. But the plan continues to move forward, and so must we.

Quote #1

“Any motorist who commits one or multiple offences shall be deemed reasonably suitable to undergo such psychological test.”

This statement by Acting Sector Commander (FRSC Kano), Alhaji Ahmed Tijjani, demonstrates the first problem: the FRSC is taking on the work of determining who requires psychological examination—without recourse to any actual guidelines. You see, the FRSC may not know this, but even doctors can’t just be referring people for mental health evaluation anyhow.

There are guidelines for these things. Breaking road rules is in none of them.

Not only that, but there is also evidence from across the world for best practices in curbing motorist misdemeanours and improving obedience to road rules, even if there aren’t actual guidelines. This is clearly the turf of the FRSC and not mine, but I at least know that educating motorists about road rules, and enforcing them (with the ultimate risk of losing one’s licence) goes a long way.

(For proof of the effectiveness of this, witness the conversion in Lagos of drivers to seatbelt users without the use of mental health services.)

But where, in this case, is the evidence for the FRSC deeming this plan to be “reasonably suitable”? What are the reasons why it is suitable? Where is the evidence for those reasons, other than just misconceptions about what mental illness is and what it leads to?

Funny thing is, the plan may well work (although I doubt it) for the simple reason that it is, after all, a form of enforcement. But considering the existence of far more effective ways to enforce, and the potential damage this will do, that “working” will come at great cost.

But it gets worse.

Quote #2

“Therefore, we are calling on them to respect traffic laws in order to avoid being subjected to the examination process that can lead to the withdrawal of their drivers’ licences.”

There’s so much wrong with that statement, and the fact that the speaker actually didn’t see it is precisely the problem. Imagine describing a medical examination as something one is to be “subjected to”: no wonder they are calling on motorists to “avoid” the examination.

But why would you encourage people to avoid an examination if they actually needed it? Which brings us to the more serious issue at stake here: this statement actively portrays an important (and sensitive) medical exam as a form of punishment.

It’s basically saying, “Act right…or we’ll refer you to a doctor.”

Of course, put that way, it doesn’t make sense. Because it doesn’t make sense, period. It wouldn’t have made sense with any other kind of illness. A medical check is typically a good thing, and something people would gladly pay to have, if they could afford it—except if it’s for mental health.

The only reason it makes sense here is because there’s active stigma around mental illness. And FRSC is recklessly exploiting that stigma for their ends. That’s deeply unfair, and reckless. It would be like if a parent was trying to get a child to eat vegetables, and then an uncle was using eating vegetables to punish the child: you’re actively associating something that’s meant to be positive (eating vegs) with something negative (punishment).

Good luck instilling that habit.

But there’s another reason this decision is harmful, and it’s this:

If someone with actual mental illness was mis-driving, then they really do need help.

The last thing you want to tell them is, “Drive normally so you can avoid getting the help you need.” (I mean, of course you don’t want them to get—or get others—into accidents, but you definitely don’t want to discourage them seeking help either!)

But there’s one more quote that shows the problematic thinking going on here.

Quote #3

“I am proud to say that our members are law abiding and will continue to be, therefore, we are calling on the state and the Federal Government to ensure that all illegal motor parks in the country are stopped.”

This final quote was from an Alhaji Ibrahim Tiga, speaking for the Chairman of the Motor Park they were visiting — not the FRSC this time, but I imagine this was just as well-received.

To be clear, I blame neither the Chairman nor the FRSC official for these statements. They were only speaking based on their understanding. The problem is that the understanding revealed in those statements reveals the real issues here: the misconceptions that many in the public, including the FRSC, have about mental illness.

The point is not that they should have spoken better. It’s that they spoke based on what they—and anyone in agreement with this plan—really believe about mental illness.

It’s those underlying beliefs that are the real problem, not the words that reveal them. And not knowing how harmful these ideas are makes them no less so. In expressing his pride that “our members are law abiding” (and therefore would not require the mental health checks this meeting was about), the man was implying that only mentally ill people are not law abiding.

Because, of course, you have to be mentally ill to drive like a mad man.

See what I did there?

That’s the problem, right there. We use words like, “mad man” to describe drivers who vex us, and that would be fine if we didn’t think “mad” actually means mentally ill.

Except, we do. Maybe not consciously, but that’s even worse, because it means we just make the association without thinking about it. And yes, Mental healthcare professionals don’t ever use “mad” in that sense anymore, but the reality is that in larger society, the difference is not as clear. There’s a reason one of the first questions people ask when they are given a diagnosis of mental illness is:

“So you’re saying I’m mad?”

Who knows if it’s something like this that’s driving this idea from the FRSC? What I do know—and what I’ve tried to lay out—is that the plan will certainly be harmful because it will reinforce the already massive stigma around mental illness. And it will do that in two ways:

  1. By using mental health evaluation as a form of punishment.
  2. By wrongly linking mental illness with lawbreaking.

This stigma is a problem because it keeps people held back. It makes people less willing to accept that they might be mentally ill. It makes them less willing to go for the evaluations that they might need, or take the treatment that will help. And it makes them less able to function normally in a society that views them with suspicion.

People like the amazing folks at Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative are doing great work trying to push back these misconceptions. But all that work can be set back by initiatives like this, and especially one coming from an agency with authority and power to enforce it.

It’d be crazy to let that happen.

P.S. Here’s the post I wrote about how the police has been faced with this same issue:

And here’s a post on how the Nigerian movie industry persists in reinforcing misconceptions…

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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