Beaming with smiles as she exchanged pleasantries with her guests – the parents of one of her patients – who had come visiting, Funlola, as she preferred to be called, in her usual sparkling white uniform, was full of assurances, mixed with prayers, as she saw them to the exit door of the hospital.
Greeting the other seated visitors at the reception of the hospital as she made her way back to the office, one would conclude that, with her cheerful countenance, Funlola, a dark skinned, beautiful lady in her mid-thirties enjoys what she does as a psychiatric nurse at the Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital, Yaba, Lagos.
While many, especially in this part of the world, distance themselves from people with mental conditions, Funlola, would later tell our correspondent in a chat that she had always had the burning passion as a student to be a psychiatric nurse, traceable to her flare to care for such persons.
“That is the aspect of medicine I had always wanted and back then, I was happy when I was offered the course,” said the mother of one as she threw a smile that suggested pleasant reminiscence.
She continued, “It’s not a field of specialty that many people really want to go into, for obvious reasons. But for me, I have learnt some lessons from my patients and I love what I do.”
But in spite of the lessons and the much satisfaction she derives from the job, Funlola said the hazards associated with the job could make anyone opt out without a second thought. She confided in our correspondent that there had been times traumatic experiences with her patients almost made her have a rethink, but that she had to keep encouraging herself.
“I will never forget the day one of our patients gave me a slap across the face when I tried to persuade her to eat her food because she had lost her appetite for some days and she ate in bits. I still had to continue to encourage her to eat her food but the hurt from the slap was persistent till I got home.
“When I told my husband, he laughed at me and told me that’s the price I have to pay for my job,” she said with a smile on her face.
As a medical field specially devoted to the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of mental disorders, Funlola who has been a psychiatric nurse for eight years shared with our correspondent during the week how one major factor that makes the field special and different from general medicine makes her sad.
“One special factor that makes psychiatry different from other fields of medicine is that, a medical doctor will treat a pregnant woman through her antenatal to her delivery period and then it ends with the delivery of the child and maybe some postnatal visits; but for a psychiatrist, it is a bit different because when most of our patients get well, as a nurse, you could be happy that he/she is going home but there is a high tendency that the person may still come back for treatment, because not all of them have insight into their problem. So, it is usually difficult for the patient to believe that there is something wrong with their brain.
“It is more like a lifelong treatment; so by the time they realise that they may have to take drugs for a life time, they feel discouraged and at the end of the day, some of them may stop taking their drugs which may make them have a relapse. But some patients have insight; they are aware of their mental challenge and they take their drugs religiously. It is not a thing of joy seeing them coming for treatment for a long time but there is nothing we can do about it other than just to help them,” she told Saturday PUNCH.
Despite the satisfaction and fulfilment that comes with being a psychiatrist, it is a profession often tagged with some form of stigma.
Mrs. Kate Ajani, a health attendant at the Neuro Psychiatric Hospital in Aro, Abeokuta shared how some commercial bus drivers often stigmatise the hospital when she mentions the name.
“In the past, taxi drivers abhorred hearing the word ‘Aro’, and they dont want to carry any passenger heading to the hospital.
“When you alight from the commercial bus or a taxi in front of the hospital, people will start staring at you as if there is something wrong with you,” she said.
In the same vein, a psychiatric doctor, who simply identified himself as Wale also chose this path of career even though he realised it was a part of medicine that doctors always run away from because of the stigma the society has attached to it.
“What motivated me to study psychiatry is that it is a field that is usually untapped and many doctors run away from it probably because of the stigma attached to the patients because of their behaviour. So I went into psychiatry because a lot of people were running away from it,” he told our correspondent.
The Ogun State born doctor also identified one of the major challenges that people needed to be enlightened about.
“In our society, many people don’t want to come to the psychiatric hospital because of the stigma, so most times clients are usually brought to the hospital as the last resort; they are brought in after they have tried every other thing without success. This stigma can be linked to family and educational backgrounds. Most of the movies we watch and books we read are about spiritualism in Africa but I can tell you that if you look at it deeply, 99.9 per cent of most mental illness is psychosocial.
“Everybody has their biases; people stigmatise the profession and usually call us all sorts of funny nicknames because they have this idea in their head that psychiatrists behave like the patients they treat,” he said.
A young vibrant psychiatric male nurse with the Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital, Yaba, Lagos, who simply introduced himself as Dare, also shared some of the misconceptions and stereotypes attached to the profession. He disclosed that even his wife who he considered as his closest friend had stigmatised him because of his job.
“Sometimes, when my wife and I have misunderstandings, she tells me I am exhibiting some of the character traits of my patients.
“My older colleagues usually say their husbands do not always want to come to where they work because they see mental illness as a spiritual issue.
“My mother was a bit sceptical about my choice of profession because of the stigma people attached to it,” he said.
Uwem, a male psychiatric nurse who hails from Calabar, chose psychiatric nursing because of his love for humanity and because people tended to stay away from the psychiatric area of medicine. He joined the practice to contribute his quota to mental recovery.
“Patients come with severe challenging symptoms like not sleeping at night, hearing and responding to strange voices, seeing strange things; some are even suicidal but with my training and years of experience, I apply my scientific care and within a period of two-three weeks, they become better.
“My experience has shown that we should not stigmatise people who are mentally ill because after their treatment, they get cured and can go back to the society to pursue their goals and aspirations. Therefore when it comes to people who are mentally ill, the society should replace stigma with empathy,” he told Saturday PUNCH.
Few weeks back, the Chief Medical Director of the Neuro-Psychiatric Specialist Hospital in Akure, Ondo State, Akinwumi Akinloye was recently attacked by a patient. He was reported to have been assaulted by the patient who became violent and uncontrollable. The CMD escaped death by a whisker.
Dare narrated a similar experience he had when he was also attacked by a mental health patient. He described such attacks as one of the hazards of the job.
“I was posted to the drug rehabilitation unit not less than three months after I resumed work. On that fateful day, I was monitoring the patients in the ward when a male patient who was hallucinating approached me to demand for a phone his father brought for him. I was just trying to deescalate the problem, so I told him I didn’t have his phone with me. The next thing I received was a punch in the eye and I fell to the ground. One of the patients came out to stop him from beating me but he threw a punch at his face also and ran away.
“On another occasion, a senior colleague of mine was busy in the ward when a patient came from behind and poured dirty water on her. Nobody appreciates what we do; sometimes, even the patients do not appreciate what we do, probably because they do not understand,” he said.
Dare, who has also been a psychiatric nurse for over ten years, shared how he received a slap he would never forget from one of his patients.
“I have been slapped by a patient before. Being attacked by patients is not a new thing; it is one of the hazards of the job. I was slapped about four years ago. My client was vomiting and I was trying to help so that she would not fall down but immediately she got up, I was slapped across the face. I would never forget that day in my life.”
Similarly, a Chief Nursing Officer, Bridget, who works in the Neuro Psychiatric Hospital Aro, shared her experience with some of her aggressive patients.
“Some of the patients that are aggressive attack us, by either slapping, kicking, or pouring food on us when we try to feed them, or when we try to administer their drugs, but not all of them are aggressive.
“I will always remember the day a female patient dipped her hand inside moin-moin and wanted to poke me in the eye, but I dodged it, and the hand landed on my chest and my white uniform was stained,” she said.
Another chief nursing officer in the hospital, Mrs Temitope Ige, said her own daily routine involved interacting with the patients, reading the reports on the patients from those medical staff who handed over the shift to her and exchanging ideas with colleagues on duty before settling down to nursing care job.
Another chief nursing officer who works in Aro, Mr. John Adeleke, also narrated how he had suffered a kick to the jaw from one of the patients and was wounded.
“I was trying to feed the patient and he gave me a kick in my jaw. They behave this way because some of them don’t see you as a caregiver,” he said.
A health attendant in Aro, Mrs. Kate Ajani, also shared her experience. She said the patients react differently based on their personalities.
Some may throw their plate of food at you, some will collect their food and pour it on the floor for no reason and as a caregiver, you cannot get angry but I still love my job,” she told Saturday PUNCH.
Despite some of the challenges they face on the job, psychiatric care givers described their best days as when their patients finally get well and become independent in the society.
Dare shared cases that seemed hopeless at the beginning, but eventually ended up in praise.
“There have been cases that seemed hopeless like patients who were admitted with handcuffs, bruises on their body, dragged by relatives after they have been taken to herbalists and spiritualists. But when they get to the hospital, they calm down naturally.
“I have spent more than eight years in the drug rehabilitation unit and I have seen a lot of patients that have been victims of drug abuse but within three weeks, they get better and they don’t even remember what happened to them.
“Some of my patients have become my friends after they have been discharged. I even tease them now that I bathed them before and we just laugh over it.
“Some of these patients don’t actually need drugs; they just need a therapeutic environment. Our brain is structured and sensitive to stress. Some of them just need a calm place to become better,” he told Saturday PUNCH.
“Some of the patients don’t appreciate what we do initially but when they start getting better, they realise why they had to be on medication. It actually takes time, majority of them don’t even know what brought them to the hospital. Most of the time, it is their relative that comes to make a complaint but by the time they are getting well, they appreciate our efforts,” he added.
Additional report by Samuel Awoyinfa
All rights reserved. This material, and other digital content on this website, may not be reproduced, published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed in whole or in part without prior express written permission from PUNCH.