There is a common ground inspiration for better mental health policy in Nigeria

There is a lot that the global pandemic reminded us of about our lives, community and the fragility of society’s fabric as we have come to know it, yet nothing more so than the importance of this very fabric to our mental health and its pivotal role to our overall well-being.

The 10th to 16th of May this year is designated as Mental Health Awareness Week in the United Kingdom. In a similar vein, May has been celebrated as Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States since 1949.

While Nigeria officially only celebrates the World Health Organisation (WHO) designated Mental Health Awareness day – 10 October, because one of the key focus of the YNaija non-binary blog is spotlighting issues on Mental and Emotional Health, we nevertheless deem May worthy of note.

The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is Nature – a fitting theme in the wake of a spate of lockdowns that forced millions to hunker down in isolation from friends, family and the routines of normal life.

For Mental Health Awareness Month, the theme is a spillover from last year’s Tools 2 Thrive – a necessary response to the new reality of the ravages of a pandemic no one could have been prepared for.

There is an overlap between the two themes.

In the wake of relaxed restrictions, it is easy to forget the impulses that drove many of us to despair during lockdown:

  • Fear of an invisible enemy that upped the fragility of our mortal bodies.
  • Worry about the losses we could incur of loved ones, income and the stability – however tenuous – of the lives we had pre-pandemic.
  • The jarring change in routine forced on us by a global lockdown and the loss of freedoms we took for granted. Something as mundane as a visit to the Park, for instance.

We need tools to thrive in all this, we also need to reconnect with nature to remind us of the beauty of what we lost – if only briefly – and what we still have of the gift of renewal. Nature is there to remind us we can start over in the wake of whatever level of chaos.

Business leaders, policymakers and everyday people around the world have been forced to take note of mental health issues in the workplace since the start of the pandemic.

It isn’t just the pandemic, however. Acting Chief Operating Officer of Joy, Inc. – a teaching and media company mainstreaming the research on human flourishing and positive emotions, Damola Morenikeji, believes that a continuing focus on mental health awareness is helping drive this change.

“We may not be where we ought to be regarding policy and state support for mental health, but we have come a long way as more business leaders, corporate entities and people continue to prioritise mental and emotional health in their decision making specifically because of the awareness being raised,” he said.

The toolkit shared by Mental Health America in celebration of Mental Health Awareness Month this year cover the following topics:

  • Adapting after trauma and stress
  • Dealing with anger and frustration
  • Getting out of thinking traps
  • Processing big changes
  • Taking time for yourself
  • Radical acceptance

You can find it to download here.

You can, in taking time for yourself, connect with nature in a way that improves your mental health’s fighting chance.

“Fresh air and exercise” has long been recommended as a way for many to feel better, physically and mentally. It is not cuckoo pseudoscience.

Evidence shows that the quality of our relationship with nature is part of the reason for its positive impact on our wellbeing.

Researchers use the term “connectedness” to describe the ideal relationship.

Connectedness refers to the way we relate to nature and experience nature. A strong connection with nature means feeling a close relationship or an emotional attachment to our natural surroundings.

You can cultivate connectedness by engaging in activities that engage the sense; sight, touch, smell, and sound.

The feeling of sand between your toes, the smell of fallen leaves or flowers, the sound of birdsong or rushing water, the sight of lush greenery, the list is long.

A return to yourself can be facilitated by any of these or myriad other things like reconnecting with old friends or simply keeping in touch with current friends and loved ones.

“Awareness is good, but increased support is even better,” said Mr Morenikeji, “we need to use every avenue to up the pressure on policymakers to extend support for mental health in the workplace and the public health budget. Employers must understand that while profit is good in the short term, the well-being of employees is what ensures even bigger profit in the long-term.”

There is no health without mental health, and an unhealthy population is an unproductive one.

If Nigeria’s policymakers are unbothered by the human cost, the hope is that at least they will care about the economic cost of mental illness.

In that common ground lies the hope for a better handling of mental health in Nigeria.

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