Election: There is epidemic of mental illness among politicians —Psychiatrists

By Sade Oguntola

‘It is a moment of epidemic of mental health problems among politicians… A good number of them do not sleep well, are unduly irritable and come up with verbal or physical aggression against people at home’.

THE uncertainty, anxiety and stress that come with elections in Nigeria are triggering mental disorders in politicians vying for public offices, experts have declared to Saturday Tribune.

According to the experts, the signs of such mental disorders are not limited to irritability, verbal or physical aggression and distress.

The president of the Association of Psychiatrists of Nigeria (APN), Professor James Obindo, stressed the implications of pre-election activities for the mental health of politicians, especially those without realistic expectations and those without adequate resilience because they are from privileged, pampered or overindulged backgrounds.

“It is quite challenging and those whose health is on the balance can actually be impacted because there is a thin line between mental illnesses and mental health. The stress of campaign and the outcome of the polls can actually tilt them towards becoming mentally ill.

“For those who have had mental illnesses before and are coping and doing fairly well, the stress of electioneering, the campaigns and a negative result of election may trigger a relapse of their mental condition,” Professor Obindo said.

He described the current election period in Nigeria as “a moment of epidemic of mental health problems among politicians and the electorate alike.”

The medical expert said: “More than 30 per cent of the electorate are also at the risk of developing mental disorders due to the pressures of life and security issues like banditry, kidnapping and armed robbery.

“Imagine the anger and trauma at filling stations and ATM points because of fuel scarcity and cash crunch. Some people have developed depression. So many other mental illnesses can actually become precipitated in people who were previously without mental problems.”

According to Professor Obindo, politicians who refrain from treating underlying medical conditions like hypertension and diabetes also risk developing complications from non-communicable diseases like stroke and heart failure during an election period such as this.

For the Head of the Department of Psychiatry, Ladoke Akintola University of Technology (LAUTECH) Teaching Hospital, Ogbomoso, Dr Adeoye Oyewole, horse-trading, movement from one political party to another, introduction of the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BIVAS) by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and other intricacies of the political system which create many uncertainties have made elections more challenging in Nigeria.

Dr Oyewole said: “The Bimodal Voter Accreditation System is making elections difficult to manipulate by politicians. This means that politicians vying for offices need to get the people to buy into their candidature. So, the average politician is under more psychological pressure, coupled with the cashless policy that does not allow them to use money to influence the voters.

“Many politicians have sold their property and have been thrown into big debts trying to finance their campaigns. And now many voters collect money to vote and the politicians are not sure of what will happen. All these have made it more challenging, especially for those without coping mechanisms.

“So, a good number of them will definitely experience some degree of mental disorders after the elections. Some of the disorders may be reversed and others may not and, therefore, they require psychiatrists to treat them.

“With the postponement of the governorship and House of Assembly elections by one week, a good number of the politicians’ wives, children and close allies will tell you that it is a lot of pressure on them. A good number of them do not sleep well, are unduly irritable and come up with verbal or physical aggression against people at home. Some may even have run away from home.

“When politicians resort to smoking and taking hard drugs and alcohol to cope with the stress of election, this further worsens their physical and mental health.

“They don’t sleep well, so they are deprived of the restorative benefits of sleep. Alcohol can have damaging effects on their liver. The nicotine in cigarettes will affect cholesterol metabolism. Their heart is also challenged because of sustained hypertension and a good number of them will not want to see their doctors because they are engrossed in politics.”

Given the uncertainty, anxiety and worries of the election process, Dr Oyewole said politicians need the interventions of mental health experts before and immediately after the election to help them confront their fears, distrust, failures and losses from elections which could be enormous.

Oye Gureje, Professor of Psychiatry and Director, World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Research in Mental Health, Neurosciences and Substance Abuse, Department of Psychiatry, University of Ibadan, said “the mental health consequences of these elections on politicians and the electorate will partly be due to misinformation and mudslinging.”

According to Professor Gureje, misinformation and mudslinging can cause a lot of anxiety, anger and frustration which may result in violence.

He added: “In this particular electoral cycle, you see that pulpits have become political podiums. A lot of people are listening to prophesies and very conflicting words and what they profess does not happen. That will have an effect on them, leading to rejection and blame.”

In a remark, the President, Medical and Dental Consultants Association of Nigeria (MDCAN), Dr Victor Makanjuola, a consultant psychiatrist, said unpredictable outcomes of election are bound to be a source of a high degree of anxiety for politicians and this can be worsened by the peculiarities of each individual’s genetic makeup.

Dr Makanjuola said: “Anxiety in someone who is prone to it before this will be escalated during this period of uncertainty about the outcome of election. Someone who is prone to paranoia, in such a person, being suspicious will become really exaggerated in this period of election and he might become unduly suspicious of even his allies, let alone his enemies’ intentions.

“If he is afraid that voters will pull out at the last minute like we are seeing now or if he has a case in court challenging his candidacy, even while the main election is going on, all these can add to his anxiety level.”

The medical expert added that for some politicians, election loss is like loss of a loved one.

“When results of elections start to come in, a politician can find it difficult to accept loss and may need to go through the stages of grief to overcome the loss. It is like the loss of an individual for that politician. The grief can be that profound. It can challenge his mental state and cause him to experience a breakdown.

“This explains the irrational behaviours of some political actors shortly after election results are announced. They behave out of character. It is part of adjusting to the stress or responding to the stress of the loss.

“Mind you, essentially, mental health is the individual’s response to changes in his environment, his ability to contribute productively to his community, withstand stress and respond appropriately to stressful situations and when there are adversities, he is also able to cope. Such a person has good mental health.

“So, for politicians, generally, their mental health will really be challenged. It cannot be optimal until this election period is over. Some will respond appropriately and cope with the stress while others may not cope with the stress. They may not necessarily have full mental health disorder despite not coping well but those who are genetically predisposed to mental health disorders may actually break down.”




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