How Parents Play A Lifelong Role In The Mental Health Of Young Nigerians

A recurring conversation that deserves to be explored with sufficient depth and nuance

A running joke among Nigerians is that mental health is a rich person’s complex. “Na who dun chop dey see therapist,” some people would say, a reference to the mounting hardship in the country. In the past few days, the issue of mental health has again emerged into popular discussion, but this time taking a dimension not many have explored, considering how close it hits to home, literally. This involves the role of parents in the psychological make-up and mental wellbeing of their children and offsprings. 

Earlier this week, on Monday, a young teenage girl on TikTok went viral for being met with berating after approaching her parents for a new iPhone model. The resultant TikTok video which soon made rounds on the timeline showed the parents’ reaction to her demands; of all the many ways they could have handled it, they chose the moral high ground. It’s not a very pleasant video to watch; personally, I found the choice of words outright unacceptable, while the undertones went even deeper than the primary conversation, suggesting that the young woman should go sell her body if an iPhone was so important for her. Put mildly, the video documented verbal abuse. But considered critically, it’s an extension of the trans-generational traumas that many young Nigerians are born into. Going by the reactions to the event, an overwhelming number of us have not outgrown the harmful perspective of seeing these situations as normal, and even as a means of character building. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. As a child who grew up, first in the upper middle class area of Kirikiri Town and then in the working middle class part of Ajegunle, I was opportune to witness variant methods of children’s upbringing. And as many have been wont to suggest, it’s not inherently an issue of class. While some parents were verbally and physically heavy towards their children, others who fell within the same income bracket were considerate of the children’s immaturity, a natural consequence of biology. These weren’t the most educated people you’ll meet; particularly in Ajegunle, a lot of the parents I knew didn’t complete secondary school, or perhaps did but didn’t get into university, but their handling of emotional issues was a beautiful thing to see.

At this juncture, the conversation must expand beyond that sole event, and rather becomes a generational discussion; which is, to investigate and challenge how deep the wounds of young people lie. For many young Africans, the burden of coming from homes where their sense of self-worth have been treated with no understanding of sensitivity is a heavy one to shake off. It’s a two-sided conversation, and there’s no attempt here to wholly throw parents under the bus.

As children brought up in Nigeria, perhaps the first emotion we learn is shame. Couched within the sensibilities of communal life, the opinion that it takes a village to raise a child, we’re taught to consider the gaze of others even more than we see ourselves. For an adult, shame is not inherently a bad thing to have, but when that has been inculcated into one’s belief system when they should be exploring their own freedom, it leads to an overcompensation in moral attitude in the future. Rather than speak up for themselves or live freely as they should, they’re more aware of what others would think or say. When one considers all the supposedly problematic things they did as a child, it becomes clear that those things weren’t as problematic as they thought, rather it was viewed with such a serious lens because one’s parents brought the critical weight of a community’s opinion into what was essentially an individual matter. 

Shame manifests most especially in romantic relationships and work spaces, where some clip their wings so they can safely stay behind the scenes. In the case of the latter, the imposter’s syndrome is a quite popular understanding, given how much professional life has come to mean in these times. Falling short of one’s desired love life is however an underexplored terrain, especially when the attempt is made to trace some behavioural shortcomings back to one’s familial upbringing. Across Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers’, the Compton-born rapper explores the depth of interpersonal relationships and how they influenced his character and actions growing up as a young man and even in the present, as a celebrity. Perhaps the most poignant of the songs were “Father’s Time” and “Mother I Sober,” which are twin pieces in the grandiose landscape that Lamar painted with the acute, humanising tip of his scorching poet’s pen. 

“You really need some therapy,” begins “Father’s Time,” over the clicking sound of a typewriter. “Real nigga need no therapy, fuck you talkin’ about?” And then in two poignant verses, Kendrick lays down the depth of his daddy issues, honing especially into his reaction to pain and how living through it was considered to be a weakness. When he raps, “that man knew a lot, but not enough to keep me past them streets,” he’s referencing the fact that all the discipline he got couldn’t stop him from venturing into the waiting arms of the life he knew around him, just as a lot of our parents tried to “protect” us from the life around us as kids, but some way we still found our way into that reality. Humans will always crave the elusive, after all. “My life is a plot, twisted from directions that I can’t see,”  he raps in completion of the couplet, this time recognising the external influences on his personality, a recognition that people can be twisted, not because they’re inherently that way, but because they haven’t identified the source of their character flaws. 

When I heard that song for the first time, I almost broke down in tears. I have some daddy issues of my own, perhaps not as far-reaching as Kendrick paints his, but it humanised that person who I’ve always seen as a flawless hero. Until then, seldom in my life have I considered that this man who was born about a decade before Nigeria became a country was living with the weight of expectations that gave him no language. Being the first child and only son of his family, he sacrificed personal desire for the greater good, and now he was bringing up a family of his own, without any acknowledgement of the sacrifice it took for him to get there. Over the years, I have learnt to understand the man more and more, although that understanding doesn’t necessarily stop me from exploring the distinct manifestations of his own trauma. In so doing, one tries to construct an emotional landscape, pushing out the negative aspects of that upbringing (verbal and physical abuse) while conditioning the mind to adopt its positive aspects, like the unencumbered approach to hardwork and upscaling one’s status in life. 

“Mother I Sober” is a more sprawling record which is more in-tune with the trauma of Kendrick’s mother. It begins from a place of acknowledgement, with the artist rapping, “I’m sensitive, I feel everything, I feel everybody”. Foreshadowing the doubtful perspective he embodies throughout the album, the song evolves from the consideration of sexual abuse and how Kendrick’s family thought a cousin of his assaulted him. It’s a manifestation of care, an opposing emotion to what the artist felt with his father, but even within that care is the protectiveness that many parents display when they behold (or think they do) a familiar confusion within the psyche of a child. “Did he touch you, Kendrick?” is the recurring question throughout the record and by the last pair of verses, he reveals, in reference to his mother’s questions, that “I never knew, she was violated in Chicago” and in the song’s last movement, he bursts, literally, into freedom:

So I set free myself from all the guilt that I thought I made

So I set free my mother all the hurt that she titled shame 

So I set free my cousin, chaotic for my mother’s pain

In the Nigerian context, trauma and therapy hasn’t been considered with deserving depth. Across our popular culture, very few creations have summarily dealt with the topic with the research and introspection it deserves. It was big news in 2017 when the World Health Organization (WHO) revealed that Nigerians were the most depressed people in Africa and had the 15th highest rate of suicides in the world. Later in 2019, Al Jazeera ran a report which stated that one in four Nigerians were suffering from a mental illness. Naturally, given the consistently diminishing state of our economy and the tough lives many of us pass through, the problem is often chalked down to money, but it’s much deeper than that. 

Among the contributing factors behind Nigerians’ being depressed, familial issues rank very highly. This is because the threshold for mental health in Nigeria is so low that people don’t even share a basic awareness of how psychologically limiting their backgrounds has made them. It’s a known fact that when one is brought up within an overwhelming lack, whether of basic human resources or emotional needs, they grow up overcompensating for those things they never had. One of the ways that manifests is by trying to prove that those things they lacked was what made them the strong people that they are. And yet, “strong people” tend to be the most depressed people; they go out of their way to meet the needs of others while neglecting their most essential needs. Even the mere vocalisation of those needs are sometimes considered a disturbance to the other person.

The young girl with the iPhone, given the proven lessons of psychology, would probably grow up unable to trust her parents. She would go out of her way to make sure she doesn’t have to rely on them, as those words have taken root in her psyche, thereby creating a barrier that turns natural want on its head. As many people have been keen to say, learning to fend for oneself—especially in a country like Nigeria—is a good skill to have, but a young person’s value shouldn’t be viewed through such a limiting lens. Perhaps, we should give young people the same grace we give to parents, as you’d barely see people calling out their parents who weren’t able to give them the best of life. 

M.I Abaga’s ‘Yxng Dnzl’ is another piece of art which delves into the mental landscape. Purposely tilted towards M’s long-honed image as a rap savant, it is nevertheless one of the most vulnerable pieces the artist—who’s often made an art of the emotion—has created. With real-life sessions with his therapist folded into the intricate poetry of the songs, one of the most revealing things the therapist got M.I to say was how he felt “neglected and abandoned” after his younger brother Jesse was born, and the love which was unreservedly his was now being shared with someone else. “You used to carry me,” the rapper said to his mother, “Now you’re carrying Jesse”. It hit hard, that line, having seen parents being unable to love their older children with the same intensity once a new one comes along.

Knowing that this is a complex discussion, and definitely not a one-size-fits-all affair means that a lasting solution would be for young Nigerians to constantly investigate their relationship with their parents. Far from it, these people aren’t impossible, and didn’t deliberately set out to negatively influence our mental health, but sometimes they did. By virtue of giving birth to us and raising us from infancy, inculcating our core values such as the levels of expression we become familiar with, they are by far the most influential people in our lives. And while they didn’t have the necessary tools to deal with their own traumas, excusing it’s manifestation as normal does our future as parents a huge detriment. 

Parenting is not an easy task but when carried out well, it benefits both the child, the parent and society at large. Feeding a child, putting them through school, providing their shelter—these are essential provisions, but navigating modern life demands more than these. It demands the provision for a child’s emotional needs. Deprive them of this and they’ll go through their adult life feeling a crucial absence, and in their search for something to fill that up, the many vices we’re familiar with creep into their life. It’s a story we’ve seen over and over again, but it’s one whose telling can never be complete, not until we have emotionally mature parents.

Featured image credits/NATIVE