Changing Minds About Mental Illness

04/02/2016 18:00 GMT | Updated 04/02/2017 10:12 GMT

Growing up in Nsukka, the small university town in southeastern Nigeria where I spent my early childhood, Saturday mornings were usually the days when my mother would go shopping at Ahia Ogige, the local market. An invitation to accompany her was a treat, a useful diversion from our normal routines of helping out with household chores, or playing in the garden with our friends. The market with its myriad sights, colours and smells was a different world. It bustled, alive with people and the sounds of commerce. There were the rude porters shouting "Uzo, uzo" clearing the way as they manoeuvred wheelbarrows piled high with goods through the narrow passage ways of the market, to the backdrop of a cacophony of music blaring from the record shops that lined the road that led into the market, across the road from the women selling groundnuts piled in inviting heaps on small tables set on the outskirts of the market.

There was also the "mad man", unkempt, hair brown with dirt and growing in clumps, dressed in torn clothes, often seen dancing with abandon to the music playing in the stores. Sometimes, a kind shopkeeper would offer him a hunk of bread, which he would wolf down hungrily, sometimes still dancing. He was a fixture in the market, and to us children, he was simply the "mad man", a figure of derision, some humour and sometimes the target of cruelty from people who would throw stones at him. His was the first face of mental illness that I saw.

Later, as a medical student in Enugu, I would attend lectures on psychiatry, listen to professors and doctors explain how common mental illness was in our environment, and how little support there was for them. Our clinical posting to the psychiatric hospital was an opportunity to see how, with treatment and support, people with mental illness could get well, and lead active fulfilled lives. And yet, there was also the shame that we sensed in the relatives of the patients at the hospital, sometimes approaching the clinics with a furtiveness, echoing the despair written large on their faces. This was not something that we saw in the clinics of the main teaching hospital, where we dealt with mainly physical ailments. Perhaps part of the reason for this was the strong cultural stigma attached to madness, in a place where the taint of "madness" in a family was enough to blight the chances of marriage for family members.

As a young doctor, practicing in northern and Western Nigeria, I encountered mental illness in different cultural contexts, but it seemed that the stigma and the sense of shame attached to it was a common denominator. This did not change when I moved to the UK in 2001, finding that many of my contemporaries from medical school who had arrived before me were training to become psychiatrists. When I enquired why this was, I learnt that because psychiatry was not a popular specialty in the UK, it was easier for new immigrant doctors to secure jobs in the field. It appeared that the stigma attached to mental illness was not only also alive and well in the UK but was also attached, as if by association, to the doctors who chose to work in the area.

As I have grown older and become more aware of the ubiquity of mental illness, I continue to struggle to understand why mental illness is treated so differently from physical illness. There are of course many theories about why mental illness is so stigmatised, but it appears that ignorance and fear of the unknown plays an important role. Talking about it, sharing stories about how common it is and why it is not something to be ashamed of, is an important step.

A few years ago, an excerpt of the memoir that I am working on was published in Granta Magazine. The piece, People Don't Get Depressed in Nigeria, chronicled my experience with confronting my own prejudices about depression, and unleashed an avalanche of responses from fellow Nigerians, some of them close friends who revealed their own struggles with depression to me. The reaction to that piece confirmed to me the importance of talking about mental illness and mental wellbeing, at a time when the pressures of modern life seem ever more of an assault on our mental wellbeing. It is wonderful that an institution like the South Bank Centre, is taking the issue seriously and is putting on the wonderful Changing Minds Festival opening next week. Hopefully these conversations, will help create a world where people like the "mad man" of my childhood are valued and get the help they need

Ike Anya will be speaking in a panel discussion on Misunderstanding Mental Illness as part of Changing Minds, a new festival exploring mental health and the arts at Southbank Centre, 6-7 February which The Huffington Post UK is partnering.