Arewa Voices

The Overlapping Realities of Mental Illness and Superstition in Northern Nigeria

By Aisha Kabiru Mohammed | Sep 7, 2023

As psychosis and other symptoms of mental illness can seem like what many religious people refer to as being “spiritually possessed”, vulnerable groups like people living with mental illness, older people and women are primary targets of accusations of being a witch or being possessed.

Psychosis can manifest as confused thoughts, delusions, hallucinations, isolation, and anxiety, which could lead to self-harm and aggressive tendencies. Many of these symptoms are observed in mental illnesses like schizophrenia, conditions like dementia and other physical or mental conditions that affect behaviours.

Mental illness has historically been associated with demon possession and evil spirits.   Abnormal behaviours were thought to be a sign that a person was possessed by demons in medieval times. If someone was thought to be possessed, there were several treatments available to help the spirit leave the person. Exorcism was the most common treatment, often performed by priests or other religious figures: incantations and prayers were said over the person's body, and she may have been given some medicinal drinks.

Different cultures relate the cause of mental illness to various reasons and direct the treatment towards the grounds. In ancient Greece, mental illness had a natural cause and was traced to physical condition. 

"Illness as a whole is explained in terms of the four senses of humour, so blood, black bile, yellow bile, phlegm," Professor Scull, Writer of Madness in Civilization, said in an article on the evolution of curing mental illness. 

The cure for mental illness in the 21st century has evolved from exorcism, shock therapy and several dangerous procedures. Modern medicine now prescribes treatment using drugs and behavioural and other kinds of Therapy. Nigeria's understanding of mental health and mental illness remains alarmingly inadequate, leaving significant room for improvement in terms of both diagnosis and treatment. However, a pivotal moment in addressing this issue occurred on January 5th when now ex-president Muhammadu Buhari enacted the Nigerian Mental Health Bill, effectively replacing the outdated Lunacy Act of 1958. This new legislation not only champions the fundamental rights of individuals suffering from mental illness but also serves as a safeguard against inhumane treatment. 

In 2019, Human Watch released a report highlighting that thousands grappling with mental health conditions found themselves confined in institutions where they endured systematic psychological and physical abuse. These facilities, whether religious or state-run, were reported to have chained their detainees to heavy objects or other detainees. 

For a country with highly religious and superstitious people, symptoms resembling mental illness are first exorcisms or through prayers.

In Northern Nigeria, where most of the population practices Islam. It is believed that Jinns (Arabic: جن‎,  jinn)—spirits created by Allah from smokeless fire—are capable of possessing humans and causing harm to them. 

These spirits are removed by reciting verses of the Quran a specific number of times. This process is called Ruqya, and an Imam or any Muslim is knowledgeable enough about the process. Verses of the Quran are also recited to chase the Jinn away. 

In 2021, Document Women referred to a review of Sada Malumfashi's “We Are All Naked Dancing”, a story about a woman with mental illness who was made to see different mallams and have exorcisms performed on her. Later in the story, the narrator’s sister falls slowly into insanity. She begins to act strangely, and the instinct of her parents is to call on different healers to check if a Jinn has possessed her.

This is the reality of many women living with mental illnesses in Northern Nigeria. Document women spoke with Nina*, who lives with seizures, Complex PTSD and Bipolar Disorder and the son of Ummi*, who lived with Schizophrenia and an anxiety disorder before she died last year. 

From both accounts of the experiences of these women, navigating life with a mental illness was challenging.  Nina faced the difficult decision of leaving medical school due to the interference of her symptoms with her studies.

“On two or three occasions, she was admitted to a  Neuropsychiatric Hospital in Aro, Ogun State. She'd escape and come back home by begging trailers coming back to the North for a ride. She would tell us heartbreaking tales of how they beat her there, starve her and how she couldn't bear the thought of not being with us." Umar* Ummi's son tells Document Women. Ummi had been separated from her children for long periods to receive treatment. 

Ummi* shares a similar painful experience with Nina* before getting her diagnosis.

“I lived with my grandparents when people were called to perform exorcisms and treat me with herbs and concoctions. It was terrible, very terrible. Sometimes, my hands would be tied. I had asthma, but they would put me inside a blanket, and they would burn incense and herbs next to me or inside the blanket. They would also rub some ointments to sleep. 

There were concoctions I had to take morning, afternoon and Night. At some point, four men held me down to put a drug on me. To give you an idea of the concoctions, they cut onions inside water, put my hands inside and recited Sura-tul-baqarah, then forced me to drink it.” She describes the procedures done to her to expel Jinns. A possible response to the treatment she endured, was that she lost her ability to speak and walk during that time.

Both Nina and Ummi had endured violent and traumatic childhoods. Umar explained to Document Women that she lived with a stepmother who barely cared for her. This, among other factors, might have caused her mental illness.

Umar says his  "mother was an only child who lost her mother whilst an adolescent. Her relationship with her stepmother was rocky. Hence, she was in boarding school throughout her life. She would tell tales of how depressing school was, how she was bullied and how coming back home during the holidays was unsatisfying. She wanted more, but it was not in her destiny. I believe that was when her condition started, triggered by her traumatic childhood and the constant feeling of neglect. It started then, but it was dormant, not noticeable to anyone. 

Then, in 1997/1998, after the birth of my younger brother, it became obvious. Probably exacerbated by post-natal depression. She would talk to herself, become hostile, refuse to breastfeed her newborn, take her bath, or wear clean clothes, and pray regularly." He said. He also wasn't sure of what caused her illness because she was not given a proper diagnosis while she was at the hospital.

Till today, I can't say for sure if it was Jinn or a mental breakdown. In the North, there is an overlap of both. In some quarters, it is believed it is Jinn, while health practitioners will tell you it's nonsense to say it's Jinn, they'll make their diagnosis and tell you it's Schizophrenia or this or that." 

Nina* had to discontinue her medical school education due to her symptoms, which were significantly affecting her ability to study. Her early life had been marred by the sexual violence she endured as an infant. Nina got a proper diagnosis after contacting Mentally Aware Nigeria(MANI), an NGO that offers free counselling and mental Health Awareness to Nigerians. 

“I started talking to MANI some years ago, and they linked me to a psychologist. It wasn’t doing it for me, so I saw another doctor who diagnosed me with Psychosis. I currently get treatment for OCD, and at some point, I took medicine for anxiety and depression. I still have self-harm scars, but I am better; when I spoke to other people about my experience, I cried, But I am better at telling it now,” she tells Document Women. 

Unfortunately, Ummi* never got the same closure regarding her condition. 

The stories of Nina and Ummi underscore the urgent need for greater mental health awareness and support in Nigeria, particularly in regions where cultural beliefs intersect with mental health challenges. While progress has been made with the enactment of the Nigerian Mental Health Bill, there remains a critical gap in understanding and addressing mental illness, especially among vulnerable groups.

Their experiences highlight the importance of accessible mental health resources and the destigmatization of mental health issues in Nigerian society, ultimately offering hope for a more compassionate and inclusive approach to mental health care in the future.