Friday, February 21, 2020
Mental Illness In Nigeria: A Conversation That Needs To Be Had

Mental Illness In Nigeria: A Conversation That Needs To Be Had


According to the World Health Organization, one in four Nigerians – some 50 million people are suffering from some sort of mental illness.

When I had this conversation with a friend, he insists that going by what we see on Twitter and Facebook daily, he believes that number may be double if not triple. Because you see, a mental illness sufferer does not have to be naked and carrying “eru weyrey” about.

I served in Oraifite, Anambra State and in this particular family, while the parent was “hale” at least 4 of their children have a mental illness. 2 of them were so serious they lived in the market square.

I remember vividly how the company driver recounted the story. He had said, “Barrister Lepa, (My work name. Please don’t ask)

“Everybody nain dey mad for the family oh”

“Dem say na another person wan been marry the woman as she nor gree nain the man begin do the children”

“All of them dey mad for that house” He had said.

In all the states I have lived and visited, I have seen tons of severe mentally ill people.

I have several experiences in Lagos.

In the church I grew up, once in a while, a sufferer of mental illness was brought and he was often tied so he would not run away.

There was one boy, Friday. We used to play together. Then he became “mad” and we couldn’t. They tied him in church for several months. He went through many days of dry fasting and when we thought he was getting better, he relapsed.

He was violent sometimes, sometimes just listless and rambling nonsense.

He used to have many dreams but had to abort plans to go to the university. He never furthered his education.

Yet despite the prevalence, mental illness is perhaps one of the most neglected diseases in the country.  Conversations on mental health disorders in Nigeria are at best, fleeting where they are not treated with disdain.

To admit that you have a mental illness is to say in Nigerian parlance that you are mad.

Not the usual people use for banter, ‘You dey mad?!’,

“I dey mad oh! Ask about me.”

It is an admission that you are a raving lunatic. That off course is greeted with a thunderous, “GOD FORBID!”

“You will not be mad in Jesus’ name!”

If you can convince the person that you are indeed suffering from mental illness, 90% of the time, you will be advised to pray. This is because mental illness is treated as a demonic problem in Nigeria.

Perhaps fueled by traditional ideas of mental illness. The church appears not to have a sufficiently robust theological approach to the challenges raised by mental health and illnesses.

In fact, it has been documented that Men of God from many religions believe that a believer cannot be afflicted by mental illness – depression, suicidal thoughts, etc.

Due to the stigma, the level of awareness of the Nigerian public on mental health issues is grievously poor and even worse, the misconceptions regarding mental health are astronomical and continue to flourish.

But mental illness is not going anywhere. If stats are anything to go by, more Nigerians will slip into mental illness due to poverty, insecurity, everyday disappointment or just the thought of being a Nigerian – Helplessness.

We will have another episode where someone thinks he has been promoted to the Head of the Nigerian Custom or even the presidency. This is because according to research,  the Mental Health Policy document in Nigeria was formulated in 1991 has had absolutely no revision or formal assessment since 1991.

With everything that concerns health in Nigeria, it appears this one is on the backburner. A clear indication is the recent 2020 proposed budget where President Muhammadu Buhari allocated just 4.3 percent of the total budget for health.

The health sector is declining and forget Dr. Chris Ngige’s robust argument of how we have enough doctors in the country, the only set of people increasing are pastors and witch doctors. Most who think mental health is shameful and demonic.

Mental Health has been proven to be pervasive. With zero regards to ages, tribes, income levels, religions, and political affiliation. In fact, there are certain things our politicians and citizens alike do in Nigeria that in “saner climes” people would have questioned their mental health.

We honestly should have that conversation.

Photo Credit: Robin Hammon when he covered mentally ill people in Sudan.

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