This is how Churches and Mosques come in to change the narrative on mental illness stigma

There is a trend lately of Nigerians discussing mental health and lamenting the stigma attached to it – arguably due to the copious amount of public education by mental health organisations and other institutions of information and learning.

People ponder – with affected heaviness of heart – how come the culture is so lacking in understanding of mental health issues. They declare that, “Most Nigerians’ only understanding of mental health is from their encounters with ‘kolo’ people and nothing more.”

Often, the condition we Nigerians refer to as ‘madness’, is schizophrenia

The people we refer to as ‘Kolo’ people are people suffering from schizophrenia – a serious mental disorder in which people interpret reality abnormally.

Schizophrenia is characterised by thoughts or experiences that seem out of touch with reality, disordered thinking, and behavior that impairs daily functioning.

It is usually lifelong, so often is its treatment, which involves a combination of medications, psychotherapy, and coordinated speciality care services.

The above bit of information on schizophrenia is a summary compiled by this writer after reading mere two articles following a Google search, which is exactly what everyone – who isn’t a professional mental health professional – can do with a quick search.

The aforementioned is worth mentioning not just for transparency’s sake, but also to make the point that if truly Nigerians who lament the lack of information on mental health in the country – despite the thankless labour of educators – they could get that information with a quick Google search.

It can be argued that even were the population in Nigeria with internet access – 104.4 million Nigerians as of January 2021 as reported by – to access this information and actively use it to reduce their prejudice for mental illness, it is not enough. That number, after all makes up only 50% of the nation’s population.

What happens to the other 50%? Who is taking care of their education?

A reasonable answer to that query is that the other 50%, if they indeed learn, can take up the task and we will all be the better for it. But you soon see that reasonable answer fall apart in the face of the enormity of the problem of stigma towards mental illness.

Report after report has been published in recent years about how detention, chaining, and violent treatment persist in state hospitals, rehabilitation centers, traditional healing centers, and both Christian and Islamic faith-based facilities claiming to help the mentally ill.

The reporters of these stories are often denied access to these facilities – perhaps to hide the atrocities in them – and little outrage follows these reports from the public. Why is that?

Knowing everything we know about us Nigerians, about our culture which we are part and parcel of its evolution and perpetuation, it is easy to connect the dots of this large-scale stigma that doesn’t seem to want to go away.

The whole nation could read all there is to read about mental illness, sit with the knowledge that what it requires from us is empathy and support, and return to their daily grind better informed and willing to do better.

Come Friday – for Muslims, and Sunday – for Christians, a single sermon blaming mental illness on Jinni (Arab for malevolent spirits) and demon possession will unravel most of that learning and water down the empathy in people’s hearts.

Because Nigerians are a proudly religious people, you do the math, and you begin to see how it will have to take either a daily devotional level of devotion plus more to unlearning one’s stigma towards mental illness or the involvement of the churches and mosques to change the narrative for any headway to be made.

The question is what does either institution stand to gain from it? 

Ruqiyya (Arab for exorcism) and its Christian equivalent are still big business for both institutions.

Yet, one hopes that a continuous appeal to humanity will eventually win these institutions over and in due course their devoted followers – the Nigerian people.

One hopes.

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