Authorities in Nigeria last year estimated that 30 percent of its population are believed to be suffering from mental disorders.
Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Health, Abdulaziz Mashi Abdullahi, stated this at the mental health action committee and stakeholders workshop in the capital, Abuja.
A 25-year-old Hauwa Ojeifo runs an organization that is using a helpline, social media, and support groups to tackle the considerable stigma surrounding mental health in Nigeria.
When people say mental health, what an average Nigerian will hear, whether exposed through reading or through travelling, is that someone has run mad.
She holds meetings with her mental health support group in Lagos, Nigeria.
The members gather regularly to share their experiences, challenges, and general perspectives about living with mental illness in Nigeria.
Groups like this may have become a common part of the social fabric in many urban centres around the world, but in Nigeria, they are a very recent development.
“I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine in UK and she was like you know what, look for a support group like over here they are support groups for different kinds of things and it’s very very good, the impact is really good and it helps people a lot and I looked around and I didn’t find any and I am like you know what just start this really and that was just what I did,” Hauwa said.
The positive impact of the support group led to a helpline, numerous blog posts, and social media platforms in support of mental health awareness under an initiative Hauwa calls ‘She Writes woman’.
But Hauwa and other mental health advocates have a tough job. It is a largely taboo subject in Nigeria.
Oyinkansola Alabi is a licensed therapist who works mainly with professionals in Lagos.
“When people say mental health, what an average Nigerian will hear, whether exposed through reading or through travelling, is that someone has run mad and our media has perpetrated that narrative also. When you watch movies or listen to a song and hear ‘kolomental’ or mental it equals madness so we cannot blame anybody at that level,” Alabi said.
Nigeria’s government established a mental health policy in 1991, but Alabi estimates that it will take about two more decades to fully and positively change perceptions about mental health in Africa’s most populous country.
Hauwa says the helpline gets a minimum of 100 calls per day. She’s leveraged the success of ‘She Writes Woman’ to start a walk-in clinic called ‘Safe Place’ where people can receive treatment and information.