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I was recently in a car with a couple of friends (they were actually a couple!) and the husband suddenly started laughing. His wife asked him what was funny and turning to me, he pointed out the window and said, laughter still in his voice: “Isn’t that one of your patients?”
I looked in the direction he pointed to see a man, probably middle-aged, standing absent-minded by the road. He was clad in a pair of old, dirty shorts and a singlet that must once have been white.

“I really don’t think that’s funny,” I said.

“But it is! I mean, really, just look at him,” he countered.

“OK,” I said, “Assuming he had a huge sore across his face, or he had cancer or HIV or something, would you still laugh? That guy is a human being like you. He has parents, brothers and sisters, maybe even a wife and children somewhere. Do you think they find it funny?” (I was tempted to ask if he would think it was funny if he was any of those people, but he might not have found that funny, and I didn’t want to push it. Plus it was his car, not mine.)

Really, though, it’s not funny. And it’s not funny for the same reasons I gave him…

  • That’s a human being like you and me. It’s sad that he was in such a state, but what would you think of someone who thought it funny that you stumbled and fell?
  • He wasn’t just in a state, he represented a loss. That man was someone’s son, someone’s brother. Maybe someone’s husband, or father. Who knows what he could have been in the community if he’d gotten good care?
  • After all, what if it was someone you cared about? Would it still be funny? Or what if it was (as a good Nigerian, I should insert, “God forbid” here) you?

No, mental illness is no joke. It’s real, it’s serious, and the least we can do is treat it—and those who live with it—with respect. Or is that too much to ask? (Tweet that.)

How about you? Would you have found it funny? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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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  1. I believe the origin of people’s perception of the mentally unfit is not far from the belief that it is because of the person’s wickedness or disobedience etc… That is to say it is a curse, the repercussion of evil, like the proverb goes a mad man is sweet to watch but can’t be concieved as a child.Our society e.g. comedians, folklores have painted it as a funny object. I won’t laugh but won’t blame those who do, because they don’t know better. And like the mad man you can’t catigate them for their ignorance. They all need to learn or unlearn…

    1. You’re right, funmi, it’s probably linked to our cultural ideas. A few questions though: if we believe it’s due to a curse, what exactly are we laughing at? And, do we laugh at other things we believe to be due to curses? (Say, the sex-related curse commonly known as “magun,” for instance?)

  2. Even the piece is funny cos i laughed at some point! Mental illness is sure funny. Its actually funny in a way thats not funny ! My people will say : Eni to kan lo mo!

    1. Hmm, omoaderoba… As you point out in your closing statement, “eni to kan lo mo”—it is he who wears the shoe who knows where it pinches. My aim here is for us all to imagine for a bit too what it’s like to wear these particular shoes.

  3. This should be longer and more incisive, I suggest. A lot people are not sure what to make of the illness. Well done, Ayo.

  4. I have lived in two different worlds and I can say that the difference I see as far as mental illness is concerned, can be attributed to the cultural component. Growing up as a Nigerian in the 80’s, you believe that mental illness especially the “subtle forms” such as anxiety disorders and depressive disorders, are things that don’t necessarily exist and even if they manifest, you are not supposed to label them as such. God forbid, I touch on the more expressive forms of mental illness.
    I believe creating awareness and instilling sensitivity in the society should be done a multidisciplinary approach. Starting with the Nigerian mental health policy, which although is channeled towards forming a mental health system, but in reality only a mental illness system is the observed, tangible result of the policy. The policy has long been drafted but I see nothing being done aggressively to bring it to fruition.
    We need to come out bold and advocate for mental illness. Enough of the stigmatization and let’s debunk the myth!
    “Any society, any nation, is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members — the last, the least, the littlest.”
    ~Cardinal Roger Mahony, In a 1998 letter, Creating a Culture of Life

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Mo! The “cultural component,” as you call it, is a very real aspect, but is that all there is to our issues here? And I’m not sure the policy even succeeds at upholding a mental illness system, or any kind of system for that matter…but I guess that’s another subject altogether.
      Love your concluding quote, and totally agree.

  5. Of course, Ayo. The cultural part is not the end-all be-all of the problems beleaguering mental health in Nigeria. Nonetheless, it is a good way to start finding a solution. If we lived in a civilized environment with a government effective with passing laws and upholding policies at the local, state and federal levels, I’d have focused more on how best to implement these policies. But since this is not the case, I suggest we start by digging into the hearts of our fellow men and ask ourselves, why we dare laugh at mental health issues at a day and age.

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