It’s All in My Head: Mental Health and Violent Conflict
Mindfulness, setting boundaries, managing anxiety — mental health is important to everyone, and there are a myriad of ways we try to care for our minds. But what about those who don’t have access to mental health services and are also impacted by life altering events? In the wake of a natural or manmade disaster, relief organisations and governments provide aid in the form of food, medication, and shelter. Beyond this, we don’t really hear about efforts made to address the mental health needs of those affected. How does one cope with the loss of life, home, and business? Is it possible for people to process their anxieties and move on from the tragedy in a positive way? Contemporary Heroine Etinosa Yvonne draws our attention to this narrative gap through her project It’s All in My Head, which won the FORMAT21 – Royal Photographic Society Award.
In an interview with It’s Nice That, Etinosa said, ‘whenever there is an attack, humanitarian organisations, government agencies and others focus on providing relief materials, setting up makeshift clinics, schools — the list goes on. However, very little priority is given to assessing the mental health of the survivors. I started this project so that I could draw society’s attention to these survivors’ mental states.’
It’s All in My Head is a multi-media work which explores the lives of Nigerian people who have survived attacks by groups such as Boko Haraam, as well as other violent ethno-religious conflicts. The images in It’s All in My Head comprise layered portraits of the survivors, with text displayed alongside the visuals. The words form the first-person accounts of the survivors, who describe their experiences, thoughts, and coping strategies. While some of the survivors have negative thoughts and want to seek revenge, others have found peace in religion. There are some who miss their loved ones and are struggling to provide for their families. One of the survivors says, ‘the only thing that keeps me company is my thought. My livelihood has been taken from me. I am not productive, so all I do is think.’ Some of the portraits also have short audio clips embedded into them. The sounds range from indecipherable chatter to chirping birds and the flow of a river. The different sounds Etinosa has used are perhaps symbolic of the chaos and emotional clutter surrounding the survivors, or represent aspirations of serenity.
The subjects of these black-and-white photographs look into the distance; they have strained looks on their faces. The layers of each portrait signify what the sitter has been through and how they are coping. For example, one of the portraits depicts a woman with a passage from the Bible in the background. She says that whenever she feels moody and irritable, she reflects on John 3:16 to uplift herself. The text is on a white background which looks like a crushed piece of paper. There seems to be a hurried quality to these outpourings of grief. Each person recounts what happened, what they have lost, and briefly touches upon their present life. However, there is no indication that they have successfully managed to process their grief and move towards healing.
Regarding mental illness in Nigeria, Lansana Gberie writes, ‘The World Health Organisation estimates that fewer than 10% of mentally ill Nigerians have access to a psychiatrist or health worker, because there are only 130 psychiatrists in the country of 174 million people. WHO estimates that the number of mentally ill Nigerians ranges from 40 million to 60 million. Disorders like depression, anxiety and schizophrenia are common in Nigeria, as in other countries in Africa.’ Combined with the rise of violent conflicts in Nigeria and the psychological repercussions of these, this paints a grim picture. In such circumstances, Etinosa’s work is rendered increasingly vital; both to advocate for improved mental health provisions for people impacted by trauma, but also to give the survivors an opportunity to tell their stories.
Read more about FORMAT21 here.
all images © Etinosa Yvonne