Amanda Anene spent most of October 2017 locked up in a Pentecostal church in Awka, Anambra. Her parents had her isolated in a storeroom in a church in a bid to deliver her from what they felt was a demon ‘making her mad’.
“The pastor said I was possessed by demons and needed deliverance. I was isolated in a church room for three weeks. It’s not that I don’t believe in religion or miracles, I was just certain that I was not possessed” she said.
After 21 days in the room, Amanda signed herself up to see a psychiatrist where she was diagnosed with Clinical depression. “I have been seeing a clinical psychologist for about three months now and it feels good talking to someone that understands,” she told me in a voice tinged with relief.
“My parents are still getting used to all of this, they say the healing process did not work because I don’t have enough faith. They’d rather carry on the religious way but I am no longer having any of that” she said.
For many people living with mental health disorders in Nigeria, Amanda’s tale will feel a tad relatable as there’s a good chance their illness has been dismissed or labeled spiritual.
What do the numbers say?
There is not enough data on Mental health in Nigeria. However, the available figures are nerve-racking. The federal neuropsychiatric hospital, Yaba, Lagos, estimates that over 21 million Nigerians live with mental health disorders. Many people are unaware that suicide, depression, eating disorders, anxiety and drug abuse are all linked to mental health.
According to a 2015 report by the World Health Organisation (W.H.O), Nigeria has 20.3 suicides in 100,000 people per year. The same report found that 4 in 10 Nigerians suffer from clinical depression. This seems small but when we consider that there are less than 10 mental health facilities in the entire country, it becomes alarming. Mental illness is covered up, ignored or countered by religion as opposed to medical attention – a lot of times out of shame and the fear of being stigmatized.
Religious belief system.
Part of why anything linked to mental health is tagged religious is because of the deeply entrenched religious and cultural beliefs in Nigeria. Religion splits the human experience into physical and spiritual. God and demons, for example, are spiritual while food and the planet are physical. When something isn’t obviously physical, it is quickly interpreted to be spiritual or out of the ordinary.
Hauwa Ojeifo, a mental health coach and founder of She Writes Woman, a not for profit organization giving mental health a voice in Nigeria, says one of the biggest challenges in creating awareness around mental disorders is the belief system of the average Nigerian.
“When it comes to physical illness with obvious symptoms, everyone’s ready to see an expert, you find people rushing to the hospital. But when it comes to the mind is ill, there’s suddenly an issue. The belief system is faulty, it assumes that the only form of illness or disorder is obvious or physical. If you cannot see it, it does not exist” she told me.
“There isn’t a lot of awareness regarding mental health and illness so a lot of people are ignorant to what it actually entails. The way religion is being translated does not help either” she explained.
On what religion says about mental health, Abduljaleel Olori-Aje, Imam of the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP) in Nigeria says Islam recognizes mental health disorders and proffers preventative and curative measures.
“There are mental health disorders that Islam provides a cure for. For example, ‘Ruqya’ which is a form of spiritual healing can be a solution to bipolar disorder and depression” he told me. “I think the root of the problem is with certain people that don’t have a proper understanding of the religion. They make it look like Islam does not recognize medicine or the need to see a psychiatrist.” he clarified.
Esther Zamani, a ministering Pastor in one branch of the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Nigeria shares a similar opinion. She says for those who believe in God, the possibility of being cured when faced with a mental Illness is on the high side. “Sometimes mental disorders like psychosis can be caused by the evil eye. This is when someone is so envious of another person he goes through an unnatural[ [voodoo] way to harm the said person. In such a case, a believer in Christ needs to lean on religion to break free.” she explained.
Esther says that over time religion has been abused “Where people get it wrong is that they think religion is the only solution. Many times God leads people to the solution of their problems but because it is not within the walls of the church, they miss the signs”. She said.
The core issue is that many Nigerians who uphold religion believe it is the only way to prevent or cure any form of illness, including mental illness. There is not enough awareness on mental health and the need to speak to an expert when symptoms occur.
Mental health awareness.
For the Nigerians living with mental health disorders, they wish for more people to be educated on the importance of seeing a mental health specialist when faced with symptoms. A lot of the time, it is not enough to speak to a religious leader. Hassanah Alimi [not her real name], says more agencies need to take up the campaign to encourage people to speak up and seek help. “I was initially indifferent about mental health till I got diagnosed with Bipolar disorder,” she told me.
Knowing first hand the implication of incomplete information around mental health, Hassanah places emphasis on the need to seek medical help and not only religious solutions when confronted with mental health issues. “I know now that the mind can get sick just like the body. I think it is key to transmit the correct information about mental health to people” she said.
While it may take a while to change how Nigerians relate with mental health, it is important to uphold and start conversations about mental illness and disorders – and ways to move forward from the misconceptions around it.