Understanding mental illness in Nigeria: Bringing culture and traditional medicine into mental health policy

Stephanie E Urigwe, The University of Texas School of Public Health


One of the major challenges in treating mental illness in Nigeria is that the health care facilities and mental health care professionals are not enough in number or well equipped to handle the burden of mental illness. There are several barriers to treatment for individual Nigerians which include the following: such as the lack of understanding of the root causes of mental illness, lack of financial support to get mental treatment, lack of social support (family, friends, neighbors), the fear of stigmatization concerning being labeled as mentally ill or being in association with the mentally ill, and the consultation of traditional native healers who may be unknowingly prolonging illness, rather than addressing and treating them due to lack of formal education and standardization of their treatments. Another barrier is the non-health nature of the mental health services in Nigeria. Traditional healers are essentially the mental health system. The elderly, women, and children are the most vulnerable groups in times of strife and hardships. Their mental well-being must be taken into account as well as their special needs in times of personal or societal crisis. Nigerian mental health policy is geared toward forming a mental health system, but in actuality only a mental illness care system is the observed result of the policy. The government of Nigeria has drafted a mental health policy, yet its actual implementation into the Nigerian health infrastructure and society waits to be materialized. The limited health legislation or policy implementations tend to favor those who have access to these urban areas and the facilities' health services. Nigerians living in rural areas are at a disadvantage; many of them may not even be aware of services available to help them understand and treat mental illness. Perhaps, government driven health interventions geared toward mental illness in rural areas would reach an underserved Nigerians and Africans in general. Issues with political instability and limited infrastructure often hinder crucial financial resources and legislation from reaching the people that are truly in need of governmental leadership in regards to mental health policy. Traditional healers are a severely untapped resource in the treatment of mental illness within the Nigerian population. They are abundant within Nigerian communities and are meeting a real need for the mentally ill. However, much can be done to remove the barriers that prevent the integration of traditional healers within the mental health system and improve the quality of care they administer within the population. Mental illness is almost exclusively coped with through traditional medicine practices. Mobilization and education from each strata of Nigerian society and government as well as input from the medical community can improve how traditional medicine is utilized as a treatment for clinical illness and help alleviate the heavy burden of mental illness in Nigeria. Currently, there is no existing policy making structure for a working mental health system in Nigeria, and traditional healers are not taken into account in any formulation of mental health policy. Advocacy for mental illness is severely inadequate due to fear of stigmatization, with no formally recognized national of regional mental health association.

Subject Area

African Studies|Mental health|Public health|Public policy

Recommended Citation

Urigwe, Stephanie E, "Understanding mental illness in Nigeria: Bringing culture and traditional medicine into mental health policy" (2010). Texas Medical Center Dissertations (via ProQuest). AAI1495488.