Mental Health Bill assent: A Landmark Intervention

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President Buhari Signs Harmonised Mental Health Bill into Law
Mental Health Bill – Image file: Wassupnow

The recent signing into law of the Mental Health Bill by President Mohammadu Buhari is a step in the right direction, bearing in mind the advances that mental health management has witnessed in developed countries of the world. With this timely intervention, mental health patients can henceforth enjoy dignifying treatment options and live normal lives thereafter, without fear of stigma arising from their medical history.

It is worthy of note that the passing of the bill which was harmonised by the upper and lower chambers of the National Assembly in 2021, remains the first legislative reform adopted in the field since Nigeria’s independence and will replace the Lunacy Act of 1958. More importantly, Nigerians with mental health issues will now enjoy a new and more liberal lease of life, with the desired changes in mental health management in the country which the bill brings, compared to the somewhat obnoxious provisions of the outdated Lunacy Act of 1958.

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Sponsor of the bill and Chairman, Senate Committee on Health, Mr Ibrahim Oloriegbe, had noted that the intention was to protect persons with mental health needs, with the establishment of the National Agency for Mental and Substance Abuse Services for effective management of mental health in Nigeria.  Similarly, President of the National Association of Clinical Psychologists, Gboyega Akosile, had pointed out that the previous legislation which was based on the Lunacy Act of 1958, was outdated and inhumane.

Specifically, the new regulation ensures that people with mental health conditions are not discriminated against in terms of housing, employment, medical, and other social services. Moreover, it gives those receiving treatments the right to participate in deciding their treatment plans, without being unhealthily subjected to forced treatment, seclusion, or other methods of restraint. By these provisions, patients can make choices as to the nature of treatment they receive, with assurances of safety and the protection of their fundamental human rights.

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Other significant provisions of the regulation include establishing a new Mental Health Fund, a Mental Health Department in the Federal Ministry of Health, and a Mental Health Assessment Committee to protect stakeholders. We consider this a turning point in the perception and management of mental disorder in the country. Accordingly, as we commend President Muhammadu Buhari for signing the bill into law, we urge the National Assembly to provide gazetted copies of the bill to citizens so that they can fully understand their new legal rights.

It is equally essential for the government to heed the calls by mental health experts to formulate other critical reforms that will enable mental health patients seek help. These include the decriminalisation of attempted suicide, which is a punishable felony. This is even as studies have indicated that criminalisation discourages the help-seeking behaviour of patients and consequently threatens the effective dispensation of the Mental Health law.

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We also call on the Federal Ministry of Health, the Nigerian Mental Health Foundation, the Association of Psychiatrists in Nigeria and other associated groups   to start putting mechanisms in place towards effective implementation and compliance with the stipulations of the new regulation. Additionally, efforts must be made by the government and stakeholders at all levels to sensitise the citizens on their mental health rights.

Very importantly also, citizens must be increasingly encouraged to desist from substance abuse which has become the major factor predisposing Nigerians to psychosocial ailments. They must be educated that the signing of the Mental Health Bill is not a licence for the continued misuse of illicit drugs, the consequences of which may be too dire for the provisions of the new law to mitigate.

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