Help! Many Nigerians are going mad

Mental illness is generally on the rise in Nigeria going by statistics but the commensurate efforts to tame it is either lacking or very weak, report WOLE IGE.

Sisi Eko was the most popular ‘young lady’ in a particular part of Ibadan several years back. Though she was in her 50s she was so meticulous in her dressing that her makeup and slippers, including other paraphernalia of her condition were out of this world, hence her sobriquet, Sisi Eko which simply means Lagos girl.

She carried herself elegantly and conversed normally, the only thing wrong with her was her outlandish dressing. The children were fond of her and she loved to swagger and do a catwalk to their chants.

In other parts of the country the mentally-ill live their lives alongside the sane. From Ilorin to Jos, Minna, Port-harcourt and Abuja, the story is the same. Efforts to rehabilitate them are weak and what obtains is a situation where Nigerians are daily confronted with a group of the forgotten ones.

Many of them are harmless though. For example there is this particular one in the Central Business district of  all Ibadan. No one knew his name, but he remains the cynosure of eyes. Under his ragtag coat are clothes of many colours. He dorns tattered shoes and unkempt hair, all of which give him a riotous mien.

What distinguishes him mostly from other persons with mental issues around the spot is his display of scholarly erudition. Most of the time, he is incredibly buried in what looks like a diary, scribbling and soliloquising to the amusement of passersby.

Not far from that location is another mentally-ill middle-aged man. Dressed like a scarecrow with his attire made from dirty rags and nylon, he is often seen flaunting a white handset. Many passersby often wonder who he had been talking to.

However, sometimes, some of the mentally-ill people get that so violent they cause the death of unsuspecting Nigerians who mix with them on a daily basis.  In reality there is a thin line between destitution and mental illness in many traditional societies.   Those in both categories are often lumped together and tagged as “mad people.”

Ironically society itself treats the destitute and mentally-ill in different ways. In both rural and urban centres, children often make victims of both conditions objects of fun and entertainment by giving them different nicknames and composing songs to taunt them.

However, some societies are either more tolerant or simply indifferent to the destitute or mentally-ill such that they allow them to have close contacts.

For example, in Kano State, mentally-ill persons are better tolerated as residents give them food or money whenever they request for it.

In contrast, a female Masters’ degree holder in Ilesa, Osun State, who had published about five novels in the United Kingdom from where she was supposedly deported, roamed the streets aimlessly for months. Everyone kept their distance from her until she was picked up by social workers to be taken care of.

Interestingly, even in our urban centres, the destitute and mentally-ill often take on some ‘social responsibilities’ such as traffic control. Curiously they are often obeyed by motorists as long as their directives seem logical.


Causes of madness

To the observant, more Nigerians, old and young, are now falling victim of mental illness. The prevailing economic situation and self inflicted social habits are said to have contributed to the situation. Many of them have turned bus stops and other public places to their abode.

Professor Oyesoji Aremu, Counselling and Criminal Justice Expert, while speaking on cases of mental  illness said: “being mentally-challenged is a situation in which a person has lost some level of normal reasoning and is no longer in control of realities in life.

“In recent times, this upsurge in the number of cases of mental illness has been associated with depressing factors such as emotional and cognitive hardships at home, workplace and the society generally, while economic depression, significant failure and marital challenges can  also precipitate mental illness.

“Such socially and economically-precipitated occurrences … often start in form of depression, social withdrawal and self-delusion.”

Statistics provided by neuro-psychologist, Professor Olayinka Omigbodun and Dr Lateef Sakeeb, a senior consultant of the Aro Neuropsychiatric Hospital, Aro, Abeokuta, corroborated Prof. Aremu’s position as both of them said that they recorded 3,280 cases of mental illnesses in one year alone, out of which 1680 were treated in a year.

Prof. Omigbodun, however, blamed the government for not paying enough attention to mental illnesses in spite of the rising number of cases being recorded on daily basis. According to her, out of every 20 admissions made daily at the UCH, six or seven are generated from schizophrenia (mental illness).

“This gives us a holistic figure of 1,680 cases of mental health illnesses treated in UCH annually and this is really an alarming situation on our hands.  In a population of about 180 million people or thereabout, it is speculated that about 64 million Nigerians suffer from one form of mental disorder or the other and deserving attention,” she said.


Who is more affected? Men or women?

Dr Sakeeb, who said that Aro Neuropsychiatric Hospital registers at least 1,600 new cases of mental illnesses annually, revealed that the hospital also managed 4,000 cases of mental illnesses every year, with a preponderance of male patients.

“Most of the cases are males, who also have comorbid mental illness – two mental illnesses together – especially substance-use problem, This is where we see some mental health cases, ranging from mild to moderate depression, general anxiety disorder and some other forms of anxiety.

“Other minor mental illnesses are discovered there. Some patients who are already getting better are also referred to the community so that they can be treated there,” he added.

This is, however, contrary to Professor Omigbodun’s report that there are more women suffering from mental illness with a figure of 65 per cent “because women are more prone to develop depression, which is a primary factor causing mental illness.

Mrs Taiwo Oladunjoye, the Director, Special Needs in the Ministry of Social Protection, Sports and Special Needs, Osun State also supports the above premise.

“This is mostly because many women are emotionally unstable as the pressure of doing what is divinely men’s job is becoming theirs. Now, women are becoming breadwinners at homes, which is a role reversal between them and their husbands. God has not created women for that role. He made women as helpers to men or husbands,” she told Sunday Tribune.

She added that “the role reversal is really affecting women negatively and psychologically, more women are becoming depressed. The reason might be that women are found to be weaker emotionally, and are also not strong to absorb precipitating life’s challenges, unlike men who are stronger and who can devise some coping skills.”

Treatment and rehabilitation

Also, Comrade Biyi Odunlade, Commissioner for Social Protection, Sports and Special Needs, Osun State, whose ministry oversees the activities of “O” Rehab” programme, said  there are three categories of people with special rehabilitation needs; general destitute, psychotic vagrants and people who are at home, but have unnoticed mental challenges.

“We have treated and rehabilitated over 203 people, but not counting those brought from other states. We are not counting because they have a very short stay. Most of these people, however, are not mentally deranged simply because they sleep under the bridges. They can be as many 200 or 350; we still take them to our rehab centre and clean them up. But those who are really mentally challenged come under the “O” Rehab programme. Some of those in the hospitals are undergoing rehabilitation, while some that have been rehabilitated and now working,” he said.

In Kano, however, efforts had been geared towards early detection of instability which has helped to keep down the number of the mentally ill in the city. When Sunday Tribune visited the social welfare department, an official said victims are picked and moved to Dawanu Psychiatric Home where they are given necessary treatment.

“Once somebody is suspected to be mentally ill, relatives do not waste time in seeking professional help at the Dawanu Psychiatric Home. This familiarity with the mentally-ill is informed by a collective responsibility code that most share,” said Alhaji Ibrahim Muhammad an official of the Kano social welfare department.

But getting chronic madmen off the streets has always been a burden. That is why there are many of them on the streets. “Nobody wants to approach a madman on the street because there is no telling what he might do. When you see somebody holding a machete, you don’t want to exchange machets with such a person. You get behind the person, cover him with a blanket and give him an injection to calm him down and then take him to the hospital.

‘At times, we trick some of them. If he is greedy and loves bread, we buy and give him bread. Once he is engrossed in eating it, our men will swoop on the person. These are the acceptable ways, rather than beating or harassing them,” said Comrade Odunlade,

While speaking on how to get the mentally-challenged off the street, Comrade Odunlade of ‘O Rehab’ told Sunday Tribune that a retrieval team goes after the mentally-ill to pick them up.

“What we do is to retrieve, rehabilitate and repatriate them. Repatriation is what we do after the rehabilitation, which has two legs; with the first one referred to as chemotherapy, entailing taking drugs, and the other one is psychotherapy, which include counseling.

“When we want to end therapy, we take the person to the rehab centre, after leaving the hospital, and give them entrepreneurship development where they are exposed to skill acquisitions, and then we empower the person.

“After rehabilitation, re-integration follows. We take the person back into the society. That is repatriation. We either take them to their wards or relations. If they don’t have relations, we give them something that will keep them busy and take them to some people that will support us,” he said.



However, there is an oddity in people’s perception of the mentally-ill. There are people who believe that they have contact with the invisible world. Many people who are into betting believe they could provide them with winning numbers.

Ezekiel John a betting enthusiast told Sunday Tribune that most of the madmen had been rendering help. “They even made sane people rich by providing them with numbers when they play lotteries. When they win, beneficiaries often buy them food or give them money. Many people believe that they have a spirit that can supernaturally give winning numbers,” Ezekiel added.


  • Additional reports by Hakeem Gbadamosi, Olayinka Olukoya and Kola Oyelere.
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