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Free Helpline in Nigeria Supports Those with COVID-19 Mental Health Struggles

A medical worker injects the AstraZeneca's coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine to a woman at the Nationa Hospital in Abuja, Nigeria March 31, 2021.

Nigerian officials say social distancing and the coronavirus pandemic's impact on the economy have tripled the number of mental health cases. In response, Nigeria has launched a toll-free 24-hour helpline staffed by trained psychologists and counselors.

A crowd cheers as a mental health counselor responds to the first call on the COVID-19 psychosocial hotline during its launch in Abuja.

It’s Nigeria’s first toll-free line focused on mental health issues and part of a joint effort between the government and a group of private counselors to address increasing mental health cases in the country.

Free Helpline in Nigeria Helps Those with COVID Mental Health Struggles
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Nigeria's minister of special duties, George Akume, was at the launch.

"The virus has done a lot of damage to societies across the world economically, socially, politically and healthwise," said Akume. "That is why counseling has become an important tool to control the behavior of people who have been affected."

Psychologist Aisha Abdullahi heads the team of counselors working the helpline.

In April 2020, she started free online counseling after seeing a significant jump in the number of mental health cases after Nigeria had recorded rising cases of the coronavirus.

She says the uncertainty associated with the pandemic at the time caused an increase in anxiety and panic attacks. As a result, as many as 5,000 people reached out to her and her team.

Abdullahi expects even more to seek help through the new helpline.

"This is a pilot phase," said Abdullahi. "We're anticipating that we're going to get a lot of calls, and we're looking at expanding. So, that's why we're calling on partner organizations, collaborations, so that we'll be able to expand and meet up to the needs of the calls that we get."

Experts say that even though the number of people needing mental health services tripled during the pandemic, less than 10 percent get help because of the stigma attached to it.

Nineteen-year-old Pelemo Ava Nyajo says she had suffered from depression for years after a surgical procedure on her legs. As her situation deteriorated, she contemplated suicide.

She says she eventually overcame suicidal thoughts after working with counselors who were raising awareness on mental health issues.

"I was already in seclusion," said Nyajo. "I was isolated because everyone will go out, go to work, go to school and just leave me alone in the house. That gave more room for the negative thoughts to grow and to affect me mentally."

Authorities and the team of counselors are hoping that a toll-free line will help increase awareness and that more people will get the help they need.