Nigerians belief in gods and spirits, they belief people can be possessed by good spirit and this will bring out good-luck and productivity. They equally belief that people can be possessed by evil spirits, which are the reasons for the numerous human problems. If you are going through a rather difficult situation, then the evil gods must be at work, they reason you have offended the gods or have been cursed by some wicked spirit; this often lead to condemnation and scorn of those affected. There is the belief that every human problem has spiritual side to it and top among those believed to be possessed by very evil and dangerous spirit are those with mental illness.
Mental health victims are regularly stigmatized, scorned and neglected, they are seen everywhere in Nigeria as being unfortunate, sinistral and possessed by evil powers and not fit to be classed as normal human beings. Most of the people suffering mental illness are often shackled, locked up and beaten. A lot of these victims are everywhere on the streets of Nigeria, in their own little-confused world, cut out from others and rated as being obsessed with evil spirits that must be ignored and done away with. They are regularly beaten and no one wants to come near them or offer any assistance. When the victims are hungry and go to people for assistance, they are often ignored and the people they go to are advised to register for spiritual cleansing and deliverance in the various religious places so they can be cleansed of the evil spirits that have just visited them.
The mental health victims are often taken to traditional herbalists, spiritualists, witch-doctors and other religious places where is believed that the priests can consult the gods to drive away the evil spirit they’ve been bewitched with. In these places, the mental patients are subjected to the worst human treatment because of the belief that they are possessed by evil spirits, they are given bad food, concoctions made from various incogitable herbs and spices and they are made to sleep outside on the floor in the worst of weathers, while others are incarcerated in dark, lonely, damp, cells with no lights. There is the belief that the victims are not capable of doing their own reasoning and only will reason if beaten. Some of these priests turn the victims into beggars taking them around the streets in shackles, begging alms and making money out of them. It could not get worse and these have gone on for so long in Nigeria’s various communities, because everybody considers it acceptable.
The families of the victims in Nigeria are not helping equally; they simply want to get rid of what they consider as embarrassment and are fast to dump the victims in these despicable places to cover their shame. Many do not go back to see their mentally ill relations again and these are the reasons the victims are treated like criminals.
I wish to point out clearly that mental health victims are not possessed by any spirit as we all belief. Mental illness is a common problem; about 1 in 3 people the world over are affected by this diagnosis. People having mental illness are just casualties experiencing problems with the way they think, behave or feel. Victims of mental illness can still lead productive and fulfilling lives with appropriate support and right treatments. They are not to be written off as we do in Nigeria. Some of them need drugs and other medical treatments, while others only need our support and advice to foster their full recovery. Mental illness is just like any other sickness, is not often the victims fault and is not something to be ashamed of.
Mental illness does not just develop in people; it is often the accumulation of emotional breakdowns through loss, panic attacks, phobias, heartbreaks, and anxiety. It could also be due to lack of self confidence, stress, depression, schizophrenia and loneliness. There are many more reasons people could be mentally ill. It is important we get a quick help once we get ourselves into any of these problems, as difficult as it may seems, most of us suffer one mental health problem or the other, but it is how we deal with them that determines how far we go. Nigerians are quick to conclude that only those who are completely cut out are mentally ill, but most of us are one way or the other mentally ill and regularly needs help. The mental health victims should not be stigmatized, and they can recover fully and get over their worst, though some may relapse from time to time due to vulnerability, but many will emerge from the experience feeling stronger and wiser.
Most Nigerians have gone through a lot of stress over the years caused by bad and clueless leadership. We have experienced the worst poverty anywhere, and the loss of our loved ones through tragic deaths, inadequate infrastructures that keeps life going and many more problems. All these contribute to mental breakdown and inability to lead a reasonable life often leading to depression and consequent mental illness. We need to be more receptive and supportive of ourselves through these trying periods. In 2007, WHO estimated that about 20% of Nigerians suffer mental illness, at the present age that figure probably must have doubled.
Let us change our views about mental illness, it is just another natural process we all go through, we all get sick in bad conditions, we get head aches, body aches, malaria and even cancer. Most of these other diseases are worse than some of the mental health conditions and anyone could experience it and recover from it like any other diseases. It is not an affliction from any bad spirit. Let us treat mental health sufferers with respect and not shun them. Some of them are only going through a lot at the time and with our support they can come back stronger.