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Nigeria’s Mental Health Desert

Nigeria is failing those of its people who struggle with mental-health issues – no small share of the population. But with improved legislation, education, and support systems, the country can turn the tide on mental health, laying the groundwork for a healthier, happier, and more productive future.

ABUJA – To most Nigerians, mental illness is “when someone starts running around naked.” It is a shocking misconception, yet a full 70% of respondents to a recent mental-health survey – the country’s largest in nearly 20 years – believe it. And that was just one of the many misguided and harmful beliefs that the poll revealed.

The survey of 5,315 respondents, conducted by our organizations – EpiAFRIC and the Africa Polling Institute – found that 84% believe that mental disorders are attributable to drug abuse, 60% link such disorders to “sickness of the mind,” 54% to “possession by evil spirits,” and 23% to “punishment by God.” Nearly one-third – 32% – believe that mental disorders run in families.

Given these misconceptions, it is perhaps not surprising that 69% of respondents said they would not engage in any form of relationship with a person with mental-health issues – mostly, said 58%, for reasons of personal safety. Only 26% of respondents would so much as be friends with a person with mental illness, while just 2% would do business with such a person and a mere 1% would consider marriage. Nigerians are often encouraged to check for a history of mental illness in the family of a prospective spouse.