As told to Femi
Nigeria’s Lunacy Act of 1958 is long overdue for repeal and here’s why. It describes any person living with a mental health condition as a “lunatic”. It strips such a person of all decision-making rights and resigns them to depend on decisions made for them by relatives and guardians. According to the Act, a magistrate can determine who a “lunatic” is and order them to be committed to a psychiatric hospital, stripping them of any decision-making rights.
The rights of people living with psychosocial disabilities should be recognised, as stated in The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons Living with Disabilities. It grants persons living with disabilities their fundamental human rights such as the provision to make decisions based on free and informed consent, equal recognition before the law, freedom from stigma and discrimination, and others. Nigeria ratified this law in 2009 and partially adopted it through the Disability Rights Act in 2018, but it is yet to be implemented in the country. Thousands of people are still being stripped of their rights to make their decisions.
Charles* is one of such people. He talks about how his family mistook his behaviour for a mental condition and forced him to be admitted into a psychiatric hospital where he witnessed abuse, poor living conditions and heavy-handed treatment from the staff.
It all began in June last year. One afternoon, bored and in need of something to occupy my time apart from writing and doing voice-overs, I called my sister and asked her to give me a “seed”, which could have been anything — a car, a sum of money or a house — and I promised to triple the seed before the end of the year. I wanted to test how industrious I could be with resources, but my sister didn’t see it that way. She thought I was talking strangely and spoke to my family about my request. Her report to my family threw them into a panic. They already were concerned I was spending time by myself.
I guess it didn’t help that I had spent some time in a psychiatric hospital the previous year due to a drug addiction problem. Depressed and unemployed in 2018, I had developed the habit of using marijuana often. One time, I ate too much and was knocked out for three days. My family admitted me to rehab in a psychiatric hospital in Abeokuta. My time in the ward was harrowing. I witnessed hospital staff regularly assault patients who didn’t do what they asked. I returned home after three months with a fear of psychiatric hospital wards.
I was alone in the house I shared with my brother, listening to music when my brother and sister came in to tell me they were taking me to a psychiatric hospital. Feeling like they were overreacting, I refused. The argument became heated, and I left to lock myself in my room. To my surprise, they broke down the door. I was worried about how violent the scenario was getting, so I tried to fend them off. My sister, who’s also a doctor, held me down alongside my brother and injected me with sedatives. I yelled weakly that I was fine and didn’t need to see a psychiatrist as I faded out of consciousness.
Sometime later, I became conscious again, groggy and with a heavy cloud in my head. My hands and feet were bound behind my back, bending my body in an uncomfortable position. I was in a car speeding through a busy road. A rage I have never felt before washed over me. I asked why the fuck my hands were bound, yelling at them to untie me and take me home and insisted that I was fine. I jerked at the knots, but they were tight. They didn’t respond to my angry questions, driving on in silence along Lagos roads.
We arrived at the psychiatric ward of the Lagos University Teaching Hospital. I was enraged and exhausted, but I thought it was wiser not to struggle in the presence of the hospital personnel to avoid making them think I was violent and getting sedated again. The doctor examined me and told my family that I seemed fine. However, because they mentioned that I used marijuana, he insisted I had to be admitted. That was the last time I saw my family for the next three months.
The daily routine at the ward went something like this: we were woken up at 5.30 a.m., we’d shower, get our vitals taken and then eat breakfast by 7 a.m. Morning pills were served at 10 a.m. After that, we watched TV or slept till 1 p.m., when lunch was served. You could hardly find someone to talk to because we were pumped full of medication that left us dull.
My drugs made me very sleepy and groggy throughout the day. I was unable to think properly and had an increased appetite, making me gain a lot of weight. After breakfast, I was resigned to staying in bed the whole day with no activity whatsoever. A lone TV constantly tuned to one channel droned above my bed. We were never allowed to step outside.
The sleeping conditions were another problem. Mosquitoes flew through the poorly installed net to sing in my ears every night as I tried to force myself to sleep in the sweltering ward. For some reason, there were no fans installed.
After some time, I decided to stop taking some of the medications I was prescribed because they always made me sleep through the day and night. I was feeling a lot less sharp and unable to do things I did easily, like songwriting or recalling things. I would put the drug under my tongue and spit it out as soon as the nurse left. The nurses began to notice that I was more active and alert. I became more interested in playing table tennis on the table in the recreation room by myself, and they suspected that I was no longer using my medication. They reported to the doctors, who decided to prescribe a much more powerful antipsychotic. I hated every minute of it. I’d seen them force-feed patients with tubes through their noses, and I didn’t want that to happen to me so I cooperated.
I was also cut off from the outside world. With no phone or computers, I couldn’t reach out to my friends to ask for help. I was able to contact one friend when my sister let me log into Twitter during a visit. He visited me in the hospital. He was shocked and couldn’t understand how I could be confined there despite the fact that I was fine. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much he could do because he wasn’t my registered guardian. I told him to try to help me get a lawyer, but there was no means to access my funds and I had no secure means of communication with the outside world.
Another close friend came looking for me and told my sister that there was no reason why I should be confined in the ward. My sister said there was nothing she could do until the doctors discharged me. Being a medical doctor, she didn’t support discharging me against the psychiatrist’s advice.
After three months, I was finally allowed to go home. My family came to pick me and I was taken home. I could hardly do any of the things I used to do like writing or doing voice overs. It just seemed like my head was full of noise. It took me a while to adjust back to normal life. I started writing and reading again, slowly beginning to feel like my old self. Eventually, I got better.It was really good to see my friends again after such an ordeal and I promised myself to never take the simple freedoms in life for granted.
People living with mental health conditions and psychosocial disabilities in Nigeria continue to be subjected to varying levels of human rights abuses across state-owned and otherwise owned facilities. Zikoko, in partnership with She Writes Woman is documenting and amplifying the lived experiences of these victims in a bid to hold the Nigerian government accountable to ensuring a human-rights-respecting mental health legislation in Nigeria.
If you’d like to get confidential support for your mental health, call the She Writes Woman, 24/7 toll-free helpline – 0800 800 2000.