Mental illness: Psychiatrist, clerics demystify claims of spiritual causes

According to a World Health Organisation, WHO, health report released last year, over 20 million Nigerians suffer from various mental illnesses or disorders.

More worrisome is that it revealed that those affected are without psychiatric healthcare.

Similarly, the WHO, in its 2019 report “Suicide in the World: global health estimates”, disclosed Nigeria has become one of the epicentres of suicide in the world, with a suicide estimate of 17.3 per 100 000. It said this is higher than the global (10.5 per 100,000) and African (12.0 per 100,000) estimates.

On a frequent basis, suicide cases continue to flood social media space, with many instances under-reported. DAILY POST reported an upsurge in suicide, especially among young people, in the last twelve months.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC, last week, said, “We are witnessing a continued rise in the number of people suffering from drug use disorders worldwide while treatment has failed to reach all who need it”.

The statement followed the United Nations International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking at the State House, last week in Abuja.

UNODC stated that the number of people suffering from drug use disorders worldwide has skyrocketed to 39.5 million, a 45 per cent increase over ten years.

According to its report, UNODC revealed that demand for treating drug-related disorders remains largely unmet, with only one in five people suffering from drug-related disorders in treatment for drug use in 2021 and widening disparities in access to treatment across regions.

Meanwhile, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, NDLEA, also reported this year that over 40% of Nigerian youths engage in drug abuse, contributing to the high prevalence of substance use disorders and mental-related illnesses.

However, it is common among many Nigerians, especially youths, who suffer from one or two mental health issues to be mistaken as “spiritual problems.” The most common of them are depression and anxiety.

Many people also suffer from mental health issues and do not discuss it because they fear stigmatisation. This happens too often, especially with some African parents with little or no understanding of mental health.

For instance, DAILY POST recently reported that a man identified as Abdullahi Isa allegedly locked his wife in a room, leaving her to starve for about two years in Borno State, Northeast Nigeria.

Isa claimed he locked his wife in a family room because she was disturbed by the spirits of their dead children.

The couple, it was gathered, had seven children who were all dead.

In a related story, DAILY POST also reported that a middle-aged woman, Sadiya, was rescued after her husband allegedly detained her in his house for one year without food in Nguru town, Yobe State.

Sadiya was a mother of four children and is from Kano State.

Like many other countries, Nigeria faces significant challenges in combating mental illness.

As the UNODC report indicates, 70 percent of people under treatment for mental illness related to drug abuse in Africa are under 35.

The attendant health conditions from drug abuse are unimaginable, including an epidemic of mental health cases and incidents of suicidal behaviour, especially among youth, and many cases have been attributed to spiritual causes.

However, a Consultant Psychiatrist at the Alex Ekwueme Federal University Teaching Hospital, Abakaliki and National Publicity Secretary of the Association of Psychiatrists in Nigeria, Dr Okwudili Obayi, in an interview, described mental illness as a brain disease, noting that its treatment depends on the condition type, the impact level and the place.

Obayi stated that persons who have a mental illness like depression or psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia are usually no longer in touch with reality and don’t understand anything.

The health expert decried the societal attribution of mental illness to spiritual causes, lamenting that the erroneous belief delays the possibility of recovery or treatment.

He further noted that more than seven or eight out of ten persons of those with mental illness must have gone around, including prayer houses seeking spiritual solutions before visiting the hospital for treatment.

He said, ”It’s just like when somebody develops a liver problem or even kidney or heart problem, if any part of the body swells, and if he dies, they will say, ‘Oh, it is a bad thing indeed’. In some communities in those days, the person would not even be buried; the person would be thrown out in those days. Someone just had an organic problem that could have been sorted out. So it’s our level of development that makes us think like that.

”Unfortunately, when it comes to spirituality, as I tell them, when they come to the hospital, they don’t even know how to pray, they don’t even have the stamina or strength to pray.

”So if you say something is spiritual and will be treated spiritually, fine. We don’t have a problem with that.

”Unfortunately, suppose you see that patient in the hospital, especially in the psychiatric hospital, in that case, more than seven or eight out of ten must have gone around, including prayer houses seeking spiritual solutions before they would now come. This belief that it’s spiritual will make them present late, and that belief will now delay the possibility of recovery or treatment.

”Our concept of spirituality has a lot of negative impacts. It also worsens when they meet somebody, say a pastor or man God, who tells them their problem is caused by someone in the village. They will carry money to go and do whatever he has told them to do, and after that, it will continue. And when they now come to the hospital, they will tell you they don’t have money. But a good number of men of God, the Catholic priests in particular, understand that, and they do refer the patients to the hospital immediately.

”That something is a medical condition doesn’t mean we don’t believe in prayers or that we don’t believe in a supernatural power or superior being. But when somebody is sick, the Bible makes it clear he should see a physician.

”So the concept of spirituality and mental illness will continue. I’m only trying to emphasise it on the level of thought of theology that people believe that what they don’t have an answer to, they will tell you it’s spiritual. It is not just about illness; it is worse because people don’t want mental illness. The same thing happens with motor accidents. If someone drives carelessly and is knocked down, people will say, ‘Oh, it’s an attack. It’s an evil spirit.’ Nobody bothers to know what happened. Was he careful in his driving? Didn’t he notice that the vehicle had a problem before? So these are the issues.

”At times, a person that develops mental illness thinks it’s a problem he can manage. Even when it comes to drugs, people will still abuse drugs, become mentally ill, and the family will still say it’s a spiritual attack when it’s obvious.

“The debate will continue, but the truth remains that it’s because of our development or natural belief that anything we don’t like or don’t know the cause, we attribute it to being of spiritual origin.”

Speaking also, an evangelist with the Church of Christ, Asaba, Delta State, Dr Chidiebere Nwachukwu told DAILY POST that some mental illnesses could be attributed to demonic possessions.

Nwachukwu claimed that evil spirits could possess a person, thereby making the person lose control of his actions and utterances.

According to him, Jesus was recorded to have used miracles to heal such kinds of people because they were demon-possessed

He said, “The church of Christ recognises that a number of factors can cause mental illness; one of them is what is called demonic possessions.

“When an evil spirit possesses a person, he loses control of his actions and utterances; that is a kind of situation that made Jesus use miracles to heal some people, people who were demon-possessed and were no longer in charge or control of their actions.”

He, however, noted that not all mental illnesses could be caused by demonic possessions.

Nwachukwu, who also is a communication scholar at the University of Nigeria, however, stated that many mental issues were induced by depression.

He lamented that many people were facing the problem of poverty and lack of family support, making them vulnerable to becoming victims of depression, which he described as a form of mental illness.

“So I do agree that one can become mentally troubled if he is suffering from demonic possessions. But I don’t believe that each time we have people with mental problems, we must put it down to demonic possessions; that would be a very wrong perception.

“Many people who have mental issues in our society are victims of depression. In a country where many people face poverty, where the State does not care for its citizens, and where people even lack family support, they can easily become victims of depression, which is also a form of mental illness.

“Many of the people I find moving around naked, they are the way they are because neither the society nor their families have cared for them.

“Another reason people may have a mental disorder is because of the substances that they take, hard drugs that people consume, whether it is Indian hemp, cocaine or methamphetamine. There are so many things that many people take which can cause mental disorders. And so, when you find such people, you can’t say they are suffering from demonic possessions.

“The bulk of people we find in our society who have mental illness, those illnesses are caused by so many factors different from demonic possessions.

“Even the pressure that people face in their families, either in the hands of their husbands, wives or children, can lead to mental disorders.

“And why does the mass media carry news of suicides, and nobody bothers to find out why, for instance, a student in his final year commits suicide? Why do they take their lives? This also is a form of mental sickness. It is something that Nigeria as a country needs to pay attention to.

“Instead of just debating whether it’s demonic or other issues, we should pay attention to mental sickness so that people who manifest signs of mental disorders can receive help on time and avoid situations where they take their own lives.”

A pastor with the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Abuja also told DAILY POST that his church teaches that mental illness has no spiritual cause or undertone.

He insisted the church does not preach against or discourage going to the hospital whenever such a thing occurs.

He, however, added that ”the church is also a place of healing, and that healing could come through reading the Bible”.

”It is not spiritual; when you look at the causes that can lead to somebody being mentally unbalanced, you will find out it cannot be attached to anything spiritual. It has nothing to do with spirits’.

”However, the church is not only a place of worshipping God; it is also a place of healing, and that healing could come through reading the Bible.

”The Bible says ‘with God, everything is possible’. Thank God many of them have received healing.

”However, if God wants to heal someone, it must not be in the church. God can heal somebody by the medication administered to him.

”It is always good whenever you know that something is not normal; why not go to the hospital? I am not saying that we should not come to the church.

“Many pastors I know today engage in such exercise. It is not because you know you are a man or child of God, you just sit down and say that everything has been taken care of. No, there is no way the church is preaching that you should not go to the hospital whenever such a thing occurs,” he said.


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