By Samantha Eakes
When walking around downtown Boston, I once witnessed a group of boys laughing at an elderly homeless woman who was clearly suffering from a mental illness. This greatly upset me and got me thinking about how prevalent the social stigma of mental illness has become across the globe. Over 25% of people worldwide are affected by mental illness at some point during their lifetime and mental disorders are one of the leading causes of morbidity today. Unfortunately, on a daily basis, those suffering from mental illness are stigmatized in society and refrain from seeking out treatment because their condition is viewed as shameful and culturally inappropriate (1). This is not necessarily caused by the cruelty of mankind, but more due to a misunderstanding of the true causes of mental disorders.
The cultural perception of mental illness and its perceived causes are very important factors to assess before implementing mental health policies in a specific region of the world. This stigma, and misconceptions of the true causes of these disorders have caused mental illness to become a hidden issue in Africa today, especially in Nigeria (2). Evidence of this comes from a study done in 2004 by Kabir et. al that revealed the importance of education in demystifying the causes of mental illness and increasing awareness in the region. In this study 250 respondents in the Karfi village were given questionnaires concerning their beliefs about mental illness (1). The most surprising results were the village’s perceived causes of mental disorders.
In many countries across the world individuals have different cultural interpretations of what actual causes mental disorders. In the United States we attribute these disorders mostly to causes outside of an individual’s control including heredity, stress, poor family environment, poverty and horrific life events. In Nigeria, Kabir’s study revealed that the believed causes of mental disorders included magic or spirit possession (18.0%), God’s will (18.8%), drug misuse and alcohol abuse (34.3%), and accidents/trauma (11.7%) (1). These results show the Nigerian community’s perception that an individual’s own inappropriate and shameful behaviors are the true causes of their mental disorders. The community does not realize that many of these disorders are actually caused by factors beyond an invidual’s control due to a lack of education concerning mental health and illness. This attribution that an individual is personally responsible for their own mental disorders in addition to a response of fear and anger towards those suffering in the community creates the prevalent stigma of mental illness found in this country (2).
Current reports from Nigeria show that the attitudes and behaviors toward mental illness reported in this study are still present in parts of Nigeria today (3). This lasting prevalence sends a warning to the mental health community that in order to decrease this stigma we need to change the underlying cultural perceptions of what causes mental illness in the first place (2). The study additionally noted that the individuals most accepting of mental illness were those who were literate and educated (1). In terms of mental health advocacy, this serves as evidence that mental illness is often associated with disruptive and culturally unacceptable behaviors due to a lack of information and educational programs. Implementing programs such as these to provide areas, such as Nigeria, with accurate information about the causes of these disorders are our best option for breaking the stigma.
Educating these communities will help break down this social stigma and will encourage those suffering from mental disorders to seek out help or treatment. I do not think we can eliminate this stigma without first changing the misconceptions of different cultures and increasing social support for these individuals in their communities. If these attitudes toward mental illness are changed, governments and community health workers can be more successful in implementing mental health policies and increasing the use of health facilities. Many studies conducted in other African nations concerning the perception of mental health have found similar results to this study done in Nigeria. The stigma of mental illness is a prevalent problem in many parts of Africa today in addition to many other areas across the globe (2). Despite the positive impact these changes could make, mental health will continue to be an invisible problem unless it becomes a main focus of the global health community in the near future.
1. Kabir et al. Perception and beliefs about mental illness among adults in Karfi village, northern Nigeria. BioMed Central Ltd: International Health and Human Rights. February 25, 2013. Web. http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-698X/4/3
2. Gordon, Anthea. Mental Health Remains An Invisible Problem in Africa. Think Africa Press. February 25, 2013. http://thinkafricapress.com/health/mental-health-remains-invisible-problem-africa
3. Chiejina, Alexander. Mental Health on the Rise in Nigeria. Business Day Online. http://www.businessdayonline.com/NG/index.php/tech/126-health/52380-mental-health-on-the-rise-in-nigeria. March 2013.