Online trauma lingers after Nigeria police brutality goes viral

Nigerians confront mental health taboos as violent imagery floods social media

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Nigeria risks an increase in mental health conditions after millions viewed videos and images of the violent response to protests in the country, well-being charities said.

Nigerians critical of the government were extrajudicially killed by the country's now disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad unit of the police (Sars), but the movement to stop abuse continues, inspired by the social media hashtag #EndSARs. At protests against the unit, more violence was meted out against peaceful protesters, rights groups said.

Sometimes, victims were simply challenging police brutality, or resisting police attempts to extort them when they faced the wrath of the unit, according to human rights groups.

Why are Nigerians protesting?

Why are Nigerians protesting?

Fatihah Ayinde, 25, an intern at Nigeria’s National Youth Service Corps, was distressed after watching disturbing online videos of protesters being brutalised by Nigeria’s security forces.

“I kept seeing him in my dreams. I see him lying helplessly in a pool of his own blood, begging for the policemen to allow him to talk to his dad before he dies,” Ms Ayinde said.

In one of the online videos Ms Ayinde watched, the victim was just 24 years old. Obi Chinedu was a musician and student at the University of Port Harcourt.

Chinedu was arrested in July last year, apparently singled out for having tattoos – Sars officers wrongly viewed the body adornment as a sign that its owner was a violent cult member. Police from the Sango Area Command shot and killed Chinedu as he protested against his detention. A graphic video of the killing went viral, sparking a wave of anger against the police.

“It was horrific,” Ms Ayinde recasaid. “He begged for them to allow him to talk to his dad before he died, but the policemen were busy recording and ridiculing him. No matter what crime he might have committed, it was his last wish, which was not granted. It was just too sad,” Ms Ayinde said.

I do not want to see any more videos of dead bodies

Like other Nigerians exposed to viral imagery of slain citizens during the protests, Ms Ayinde was traumatised. “I was really down, I was just crying and hoping that he gets justice and it was good that my family members understood my condition then.”

Ms Ayinde withdrew from social media when she could no longer bear the trauma. "I felt like I do not want to see any more videos of dead bodies," she told The National.

Nigeria, Africa’s biggest nation, has been on tenterhooks this year as young people across the country demand a better police system that defends their rights as citizens.

The fact that the population had to risk their lives for change – and in some cases pay the ultimate price, was frightening but also inspiring for millions of Nigerians.

According to Amnesty International, at least 56 people died across the country since the #EndSARS protests began in October, with 38 killed on October 20 alone in the Lekki toll gate massacre. Many of these killings were captured on camera, which shocked the national consciousness to the core.

Psychologists says that watching videos of police brutality could trigger a range of mental health problems.

Like Ms Ayinde, Justine Amuzie, 32, an accountant in Abuja, took part in the protests. But her hope for a “better Nigeria” was dented after security operatives used water cannon on she and fellow protesters.

"When I went on Twitter, I saw a lot of videos. I saw one where a policeman was dragging a citizen on the ground, he was screaming and he was still dragging him by his leg, I had to log out of Twitter for two days. I just felt Nigeria won't be any better, in any way," Ms Amuzie told The National.

Angel Yinkore, team leader at the mental health unit of Stand to End Rape, a non-profit organisation that works for gender equality and an end sexual violence, said trauma extends beyond taking active participation in protests or being submitted to brutality.

“Even if police brutality didn’t happen to you or you weren’t at the Lekki toll gate, seeing the videos and pictures flood your timeline on social media will make you internalise the trauma,” she said.

Ster formed a coalition with the Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative, a non-profit group that raises awareness on mental health and connecting service users to professionals who provide support for victims of police brutality and their families and friends.

Ifedayo Ward, executive director at Mani, said the coalition has not started yet.

“There are a lot of things required in putting a team of experts together to provide mental health support. It's not enough to bring psychologists and therapists together. We need to ensure that they are well qualified to take up their roles when matched with patients.

"We have an electronic form for people to signup to, and then get assigned to mental health professionals who schedule sessions with them. The feedback so far has been encouraging but we expect that more people will sign up," Ms Ward told The National.

Ms Yinkore said most of the people who signed up for mental health support are manifesting symptoms , albeit in different ways.

“Some are struggling with migraines, some are having insomnia and paranoia is frequent. Some are hyper-vigilant and always checking their doors, some are experiencing agoraphobia, some are feeling numb and there are some who even have physical manifestations, like bedwetting and resorting to coping mechanisms like drug use.”

But the problem with mental health in Nigeria do not end there. Nigeria is the poverty capital of the world, with high levels of corruption. The country is struggling with an underfunded healthcare system, while mental health is not treated as a priority.

More than seven million Nigerians suffer from depression, according to the World Health Organisation, with only 300 psychiatrists serving the country’s 200 million people.

Ms Ward said depression, like other mental health issues, is shrouded in secrecy and handled with religiosity.

People demonstrate on the street to protest against police brutality in Lagos, Nigeria, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, for a seventh day across Africa's most populous nation. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
People demonstrate on the street to protest against police brutality in Lagos, Nigeria. AP

“We have a lot of wrong messages circulating out there, particularly from some religious bodies. A lot of preaching teaches that mental illness is not real, that it's a punishment from God. It stops people from seeking help.

“You find a lot of people who are mentally challenged seeking help from religious bodies, in churches and mosques. You start hearing of people in shackles because they are suffering from one mental illness or other.”

Legally, Nigeria still has a colonial-era Lunacy Act, on its books, a mental health law that dates back to 1958 and allows authorities to detain those deemed mentally unwell, without modern guidelines or processes that reflect contemporary psychiatry.

Because of this, the coalition’s goal is to ensure that despite the gap in mental health provision, people who have experienced police brutality and those who have lost friends and loved ones can receive much-needed mental health care.