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#EndSars: Supporting Mental Health in Times of Crisis


Recently, a youth-led protest against police brutality in Nigeria - the world’s most populous black nation rocked the world. While hashtags varied over 11 days of protests from #EndSARS which is the strongest to #EndSWAT to #JusticeForSARSVictims and #IGPMustResign, the demands made it clear that Nigerians are tired of police brutality. Specifically, Nigerian youth are tired of extra judicial killings, extortion, torture and harassment from the Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS), a unit of the Nigerian Police Force which should be in charge of robberies, but morphed into an extortion unit.


This is not the first time. As far back as 2017, the Nigerian government had promised to overhaul or dissolve the unit, however, recent killings by the SARS unit sparked off a wave of resentment that snowballed into nationwide protests. In Nigeria, the poor response to the peaceful protests led to the death of at least 12 people, arrests of hundreds, teargas attacks, water cannon attacks and alleged sponsored attacks by thugs. 


These events and the loss of life all take their toll on mental health and wellbeing, especially in addition to the impacts of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Engage Africa Foundation’s team reached out to local organizations and other public health practitioners for comments on police brutality and its impacts on health, wellbeing during the #EndSars protests and on the resources and supports they have been providing during the protests. 


The toll of police brutality on mental health


We spoke with Mentally Aware Nigeria, on the mental health impact of the crisis, who said, “As with every high pressure situation, people, young and old, are exposed to negative emotions and stress which can be detrimental to their mental health. While some have more longer term implications, like possibility of PTSD, there are some that are more immediate, like panic attacks or emotional breakdowns. We believe that it's important to provide resources that enable people to express what they feel early enough, as well as learn the various ways they can be healthy mentally and physically, or even be of help to those around them.”


Toyyib Oladimeji Abdulkareem, with the NCD Alliance said: “While there is the urgency and immediacy with the harm done to the body, people who have lived with these experiences (by direct contact, family and friends or even via social media) may suffer from different kinds of mental health harm. We have seen cases of intense anxiety, depression and suicide. People living with mental health conditions may also have episodes triggered by the happenings.”


A public health professional, Divine-Favour Ofili,  spoke broadly on the impact of the protests. She said: “Regardless of the difference in environments, just like violence, the effect is same. The depression and PTSD experienced by victims. The anxiety by victims, friends and individuals who “fit the description” of fraudsters as defined by these officers. Most people go out without the certainty of receiving no form of harassment in the course of the day. The question of “am I next?” is ever present. Now in a large group fighting against this injustice, the question remains, why? Because unarmed, peaceful protesters are being attacked and shot at with live bullets. It’s more dreadful to think that even after speaking out, there may be no change. All these are mentally exhausting honestly.”


Supporting mental health during the #EndSars protests


To manage the increased pressure from the protests, organizations like Mentally Aware Nigeria have experienced heightened demand for their services.“We have increased our capacity to provide mental health support actively (during the protests) and passively (after each day's work). We have a list of numbers that people can call if they need to, as well as panic cards which are being distributed to various protest locations. We will also be releasing a sleep passport, which will help people sleep better and wake up refreshed. This will also be distributed across protests. At the end of each day, our counselors call anyone that fills our daily support session form".


We also had a chat with Debo Odunlana, the cofounder of Doctoora Health, a healthcare startup that connects patients, consumers and professionals to quality healthcare practitioners. Mr Odulana told us of his efforts to provide first aid support at protest locations via @EndSarshealth. Another organization working in Nigeria, Psychebabble Foundation, noted their role in providing free counseling and psychological first aid as well as resources and tips to help people take care of their mental health. They noted expected spikes in anxiety from knowledge of actual losses and uncertainty about tomorrow, mental trauma from violence, witnessing shootings, and losing loved ones. 


Protecting mental health through addressing police brutality

An Amnesty International report, based on five field research missions carried out in Rivers, Anambra, Enugu, Imo and Lagos States, as well as the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), between January 2017 and February 2019, note cases of extortion, torture and ill treatment by SARS between January 2017 and May 2020. Beyond the immediate mental health impacts of the poor response to the peaceful protests, police brutality continues to affect the long-term wellbeing of young people by  contributing to injury, disability, mental illness, perceived safety and thus whether or not people will feel free to socialize, exercise, engage in active forms of travel. 


Nigerian youth have called for 5 strategic ways to address this problem namely:  1) to release all protesters 2) justice and compensation for victims of police brutality 3) setting up an independent body to investigate and prosecute cases of police brutality 4) psychological evaluation and retraining of disbanded SARS officers and 5) adequate compensation of police officers. At the time of this writing, none of these demands have been adequately addressed.


Without addressing police brutality, it will continue to be a long term threat to the wellbeing of young people. It will militate against Sustainable Development Goal (SDG3) (health and wellbeing), as well as SDG11 (sustainable cities and communities), and SDG 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions). Advocacy for forms of governance that promote human rights and wellbeing for young people, and all members of society is a win for public health.


Chika Jones is a digital communications expert and storyteller

Dr. Ebele R.I. Mogo is a researcher, innovator & an advocate for a healthy African future


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