Nigerians Got Jokes, But That Can No Longer Hide Their Suicide Situation

Jokes are the most important part of any entertainment material; tap into humour and you tap into gold. This is what many of Nigeria’s online comedians–most who use cross-dressing, imitate the typical Nigerian parent-child relationship and general behavioural tendencies–have realised and have capitalised on. Industry giants like Basket Mouth, Ali Baba, and Bovi now have a lot more competition, and despite its male-faced orientation often laced with misogyny, young women like Maraji and 8-year-old Emmanuella continue to lead in the industry whose barrier to entry has been leveled by the availability of internet platforms.

Nigerians know how to have a good laugh, and can make a joke out of anything as well. Ask those who make pop videos interviewing people, who aren’t literate, about the spelling of wordsone in which a man wrongly spelt “Buhari,” Nigeria’s current president, had a beat added to it and became a music sensation within hours. The country’s pidgin English is often the chosen medium to narrate stories for the effect that it amplifies even the most mundane stories to comedy. Most notable is the Warri woman Kate Dekpe who narrated the tragic ordeal where all her belongings got damaged in the flood: her accent and vivid description got the focus despite the circumstances which found her on TV and social media.

“Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand,” Mark Twain, American humorist and novelist best known for his adventure stories of American boyhood said. But it is this belief that may have been responsible for Nigeria’s high ranking on the world Happiness report despite being beset by poverty, corruption and violence. In 2014, Nigeria garnered the highest percentage of happy people followed by Mexico, while Romania had the fewest, according to a survey which reinforced the old adage that money cannot buy happiness. In 2017, Nigeria was ranked the 95th happiest nation of the world and sixth in Africa in the World Happiness Report. The ranking, which assessed 155 countries by their happiness levels and measured per capita gross domestic product, healthy life expectancy, freedom, generosity, social support and absence of corruption in government or business, was released on 20 March by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) as part of the United Nations (UN)’s International Day of Happiness. According to the report in which Algeria maintained its lead as the happiest country in Africa, Nigeria advanced from the 103rd position in the world and maintained its stand as the sixth happiest country in Africa as indicated by 2016 happiness ranking.

“Happy countries are the ones that have a healthy balance of prosperity, as conventionally measured, and social capital, meaning a high degree of trust in a society, low inequality and confidence in government,” Jeffrey Sachs, the director of SDSN and a special advisor to the UN Secretary-General, said in an interview.

But if these are to be considered, then Nigeria’s correlation with happiness is to be questioned. The country, according to the 2017 World Health Organisation (WHO) Suicide Ranking, with 15.1 suicides per 100,000 population in a year, is now the 30th most suicide-prone (out of 183 nations) in the world and the 10th in Africa.

News reports of suicides are common, though under reported. The most notorious case was in March, 2017, when a man believed to be a doctor, asked his driver to stop the car, an SUV, and jumped to his death from the popular Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos. Another involved a final year student at Ladoke Akintola University Ogbomosho who was found hanging from the ceiling of his room. Other cases may not see the light of the day due to the stigma attached to those with mental illness—even the psychiatric hospitalsand a culture of discrimination fueled by poor awareness and widespread beliefs linking mental disorders to supernatural causes like witchcraft and demonic possession. In government, mental health care is grossly neglected and under resourced. Around 3.3 percent of the national health budget goes to mental health, and there are fewer than 150 psychiatrists — approximately one psychiatrist per 1 million people — serving Nigeria’s estimated 180 million population.

Increasingly, happiness is considered to be the proper measure of social progress and the goal of public policy. In Nigeria as elsewhere, there are many different factors that lead people to feel suicidal. These include mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. These are often combined with negative stresses caused by issues such as economic hardship, marital issues or other pressures. For Nigerians faced with these issues, it is mostly survivors, and more aware burgeoning youths, who take the comedy and overused tropes out of a serious issue and build advocacy using social media, especially Twitter, and provide support where it’s needed.

NGOs like the Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative created in 2015 helps to dispel stereotypes, promote acceptance among people battling mental illness, and raise mental health awareness using hashtags such as #IamMentallyAware, #EndStigma, #FightingAD (for anxiety disorder), #NotACharacterFlaw (for personality disorder). In March 2017, the Lagos University Teaching Hospital initiated the Suicide Research and Prevention Initiative and the Nigeria Suicide Hotlines was launched later on.

The verdict is in: Laughter, often touted as “the best medicine”most likely due to its lack of side-effects, is only a momentary fix. Just like Codeine and Tramadol in Nigeria’s opioid crisis, it is susceptible to overdose and requires constant and addictive usage to numb the underlying pain which often goes unaddressed. Thankfully, more Nigerians are beginning to realise this and as such, are more willing to talk about, and address their mental health issues.