Fact check

Neck Up, Check Up
July 9, 2017
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Kunle Omo Ijoba always sat at a particular spot all day, his dress were tattered, his hair web mashed and sometimes he would accost strangers claiming they owe him money. The market was his home and he would seldom entertain the traders with his dance moves”.

We all know an example of the above and unconsciously, the description above largely defines our knowledge of mental illness. Our socio-cultural belief has entrenched in us several myths and misconceptions that affect our overall reaction to mental illness resulting in stigma, discrimination and inappropriate or lack of treatment for sufferers.

To change the narrative, these misconceptions and myths needs to be

Myth: Mental illness is caused by supernatural forces

Evil spirits, witchcrafts have been for so long been held as the cause mental illness. Due to this perceived causes, religious institutions have been consistently sought for cure or more appropriately deliverance.

Fact: Like every other illness mental illnesses are medical illnesses. Research shows there are genetic and biological causes for psychiatric disorders, and they can be treated effectively.


Myth: Mental illnesses are incurable and lifelong?

The curative attributes in mental disorder is often described by the adage of the crowned prince who no matter how bad things become would still have his “dansaki” on…..the Yoruba version makes better sense.

Fact: When treated appropriately and early, many people recover fully and have no further episodes of illness. For others, mental illness may recur throughout their lives and require ongoing treatment. This is the same as many physical illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease. Like these other long-term health conditions, mental illness can be managed so that individuals live life to the fullest. Although some people become disabled as a result of ongoing mental illness, many who experience even very major episodes of illness live full and productive lives.

Myth/Misconception: Mental illness is innate?

I remember my mother telling me of how families would sort through the whole town to ensure there’s no history of mental illness in the family their child is marrying into.

Fact: Vulnerability to some mental illnesses, such as bipolar mood disorder, can run in families. But other people develop mental illness with no family history. Genetics alone cannot predispose an individual to mental illness, an accumulation of risks such as bereavement, abuse amongst other life events can precipitate mental illness.


Misconception: Mental illness only affects bad persons (karma)

The lady who bewitched her friend’s husband, the wicked stepmother, the rich ritualist…..which other one? Nollywood’s favorite karma piece is “madness”.  I suppose, these pictures are what comes to mind first when you see a psychotic person in the market.

Fact: Everyone and anyone is vulnerable to mental health problems. Like physical illness, mental illness can be explained with some neuroimaging studies and definitely not caused by spiritual attacks. However, the belief of person cannot be erased, so while seeking a spiritual cure, seek medical too, the goal is to get better isn’t it?


Misconception: People with mental illness usually dangerous

Fact: This is about the greatest misconception that results in great stigmatization. People with a mental illness are seldom dangerous; in fact people with the most severe mental illness are rarely dangerous when receiving appropriate treatment and support.


Misconception: People with mental illness should be isolated from the community

The reason behind this I don’t still fathom, although I heard as a child that if “a mad man bites you, you’d get infected with the madness too”

Fact: Most people with mental illness recover quickly and may not even require hospital admission, some have short admissions to hospital for treatment. Improvements in treatment over recent decades mean that most people live in their communities, and there is no need for the confinement and isolation that was commonly used in the past. Besides, mental illness is not an infectious disease and cannot be passed from one person to another through coughing or touching.

Myth: Children don’t experience mental health problems

Once, I saw an undressed child stand in front of a moving car without fear; no emotions at all. The driver parked and shouted “ogbanje”. Children with mental illness have been labeled witches, abandoned and even severely abused.

Fact: 1 in 5 children have mental disorders and half of mental illnesses begin in adolescence.  These mental health problems can be clinically diagnosed, and can be a product of the interaction of biological, psychological, and social factors.  Our culture could not describe the emotionless attributes in some children nor is it able to decipher the hyperactivity of some children, they simply label them as “ogbanje” or “hard/stubborn child”. Majority are unaware of developmental mental health disorders which show first signs before a child turns 5 years old.


Myth: Postpartum mental illness “abisinwin” only occurs in cases of spiritual attack or genetic in some families.

Still on the Nollywood matter.

Fact: Mental health problems among women who are pregnant or who have recently given birth are observable in all countries and cultures. Maternity, third day or postpartum blues occur in 80% of women who have recently birthed a child, with characteristic emotional swings from euphoria, tears (often without sadness), restlessness, anxiety, to feeling of unreality and detachment from the new born. However, the persistent presence for at least two weeks of cognitive and affective symptoms maybe suggestive of a serious mood disorder. Postpartum psychosis occurs within 48-72 hours after birth.


Myth: People with mental health problems are violent and unpredictable.

Fact: The vast majority of people with mental health problems are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. Most people with mental illness are not violent. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population. You probably know someone with a mental health problem and don’t even realize it, because many people with mental health problems are highly active and productive members of our communities.


Misconception: I can’t do anything for a person with a mental health problem.

Fact: Social support from friends, loved ones and the community at large can go a long way in recovery and treatment outcomes in mental illness. Simple gestures such as,

  • Reaching out and letting them know you are available to help
  • Helping them access mental health services, first aids are possible
  • Learning and sharing the facts about mental health, help correct misconceptions.
  • Treating them with respect, they are not different from other ill persons
  • Avoiding and correcting use of  labels like “crazy, mad, shoko”


Myth: Prevention doesn’t work, it is impossible to prevent mental illnesses.

Fact: Prevention of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders focuses on addressing known risk factors that can affect the chances that children, youth, and young adults will develop mental health problems. Promoting the social-emotional well-being of children and youth leads to:

  • Higher overall productivity
  • Better educational outcomes
  • Lower crime rates
  • Stronger economies
  • Lower health care costs
  • Improved quality of life
  • Increased lifespan
  • Improved family life.

Conclusively, Mental illness like every other illness requires specialists to diagnose and provide care. Mental health is treatable, curable and does not require advance technology, our perception of it will affect getting help, and there’s no “I am fit” without mental wellness.

Let’s continue the conversation, share some of the myths and misconceptions you know that was not highlighted, together we change the narrative.


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