Sierra Leone’s pre-eminent advocate on mental health issues and veteran psychiatric medical practitioner, Dr Edward Nahim, passed away peacefully in Freetown on Monday 1 January 2024, following a heart attack. He was 79.
Dr Nahim worked as a consultant psychiatrist for over 40 years at the Sierra Leone Psychiatric Hospital in Freetown, the oldest psychiatrist hospital in sub Saharan Africa. He will be remembered as a model citizen who served his country with distinction and fought heroically to support mental health victims throughout the country during and in the aftermath of both the decade long civil war between 1991 and 2002 and the devastating Ebola outbreak between 2014 and 2016.
A mental health survey conducted by the World Health Organisation after the war estimated that 400,000 of Sierra Leone’s population suffered from various forms of mental illnesses such as depression, psychosis, epileptic, schizophrenia, bipolar manic depressive and post-traumatic stress disorders with less than 1 percent of the population receiving treatment. Some recent surveys put this estimate much higher.
In the later years of his active service, Dr Nahim was deeply concerned about the future of mental health in Sierra Leone which was chronically understaffed with just two psychiatric nurses and a handful of workers and counsellors. He constantly bemoaned the lack of interest in the field, notably, by his medical students. “I lecture the medical students in psychiatry, and when I tell then we have scholarships for psychiatry and ask if anyone is interested, the burst into laughter”, he once told a national newspaper.
Though officially retired, Dr Nahim continued to work full time for the government by treating many patients including those suffering from alcohol and Drug abuse, which are the biggest mental health challenges currently facing the nation. This is exacerbated by the chronic underfunding and social stigma associated with mental health in the country. Even those who suffered from the Ebola virus’s psychological side effects viewed the psychiatric facility and treatment in a similar negative light.
Dr Nahim served his county with great personal sacrifice including donating his own time and money to alleviate some of the numerous challenges of being the sole qualified practitioner in a speciality that ranked amongst the lowest paid and insufficiently resourced in the medical profession. For many years, he was confronted with the twin challenges of addressing the lack of adequate mental health infrastructure and providing basic patient care and subsistence.
Edward Ali Nehme was born on 18 December 1944 in Port Loko into a mixed Middle Eastern and African heritage. His father was Abdallah Nehme from Lebanese ancestry, and his mother was Amie Kamara, from the Temne tribe. His surname was to later change to Nahim at Bo School where the then English headmaster incorrectly wrote down Nahim instead of Nehme during enrolment at the school. The name Nahim became his official surname and was to be adopted on all his subsequent documents.
Nahim’s first language was Temne although he later became fluent in Krio, English, French and Russian. Though born into a predominantly Muslim household, young Nahim was baptised as a child and, like many Sierra Leoneans, grew up affiliated to both religions and often referred himself as a ‘Chrismus’.
Nahim was raised in the mining port town of Pepel in Port Loko district where he completed his primary education at the Church of England School. He later attended Schlenker Secondary School in Port Loko where he was among the first intake when the school was founded. He completed his O’ levels at Schlenker before proceeding to complete his A’ levels at the Bo Government Secondary School in Bo since there were no sixth forms at Schlenker at the time. He excelled in the sciences at Bo School and achieved the best Chemistry A’ levels result in the whole of west Africa in that year.
Nahim had always wanted to become a medical doctor and applied successfully for an academic scholarship to study in Ukraine in 1965, which was then part of the former Soviet Union. He spent seven years studying at the Kharkov Medical Institute in Ukraine, which included a year studying Russian, the language of instruction for foreign students in the former Soviet Union’s at the time. Whilst in Ukraine, Nahim excelled not only in his academic studies but became an outgoing foreign student who befriended students colleagues and locals including one young Larisa Doudnikova from the small eastern Ukrainian town of Volchansk. He dated Doudnikova for a year and a half before they got married when he was 24. They had been married ever since until his death.
Upon graduating as a Doctor of Medicines in 1972, Dr Nahim returned to his native Sierra Leone to work as a general practitioner at the Ministry of Health and was initially posted to the Connaught Hospital. He was not initially involved in psychiatry and in fact spent a great deal of time on paediatrics. He later made a request to the then Chief Medical Officer, Dr Marcella Davies, that he wanted to pursue a post graduate studies in general medicine. Dr Davies later convinced him to switch to psychiatry as there were no qualified medical practitioner in the field of medicine in the entire Sierra Leone health service.
Dr Nahim eventually proceeded to the United Kingdom in 1978 to pursue a post graduate study in psychiatric medicine at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London. Upon completing his four year course, Dr Nahim was admitted into membership of the Royal College of Psychiatry and was promptly offered lucrative jobs in both the United Kingdom by the National Health Services and in the United States. He turned both offers down preferring instead to return to his native Sierra Leone.
Dr Nahim returned home in 1981 and was appointed the sole consultant psychiatrist at the then Kissy Mental Hospital, which is still known locally as ‘Krase Yard’. He worked at the hospital for many years diligently and selflessly until he officially retired although he continued to work privately and for the government in various capacities including Consultant to the Government of Sierra Leone, Director of Sierra Leone Psychiatric Hospital and Medical and Dental Registrar.
Apart from his incomparable service to his country, Dr Nahim’s influence extended globally, as he actively contributed to the World Health Organization’s initiatives, notably playing a role in the development of the Rapid Assessment of Mental Health Needs for Refugees, Displaced, and Conflict-Affected Populations.
In 2004, in recognition of his work in mental health, he was awarded the Commander of the Order of Rokel by the Government of Sierra Leone which is the second highest civilian award in Sierra Leone.
Dr Nahim once told an interviewer when asked how he would like to be remembered as a consultant psychiatrist who worked in psychiatry and did everything to improve psychiatry and dedicated his life to helping psychiatric patients in Sierra Leone.
Dr Nahim’s funeral and burial ceremony will take place in Pepel on Friday 5 January 2024 after Jummah Prayers at 2 pm.
He is survived by her two grown up daughters in the United States; Diana Nahim and Angelique Doudnikova, the actress who had minor roles in the television series, Law & Order and High Times Potluck. He is also survived by his brothers Mohamed Nehme, Latif Nehme, Hani Nehme and George Hassan Nehme and eight other siblings; Mahasen Nehme, Fatima Nehme, Amina Nehme, Christopher Kanu, Joseph Kanu, Edward Kanu, Margaret Kanu and Christiana Kanu. He is also survived by several close friends and relatives.
By John Moses Kamara in London