‘How are you?’ – asking an average Nigerian youth including those with basic education translates to or is understood to mean enquiring about the physical state of the individual, if he or she at that point in time has any illness. This ideation is also observed when you ask that same individual to define the concept – Health. The answer you’re most likely to hear revolves around the absence of any physical disability limiting daily life activities. Such shows the low literacy level about mental illness in Nigeria and the stigma towards persons living with mental disorder as individuals living with manic or psychotic mental disorders viewed as mad persons, not deserving of living among the self-acclaimed ‘normal’ human beings.

The World Health Organization (WHO, 1946) rightly defines health as a “state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of infirmity” [1]. In explication, this suggest living a meaningful and satisfying life with little to no total body and mind disablement. Studies have shown that most times, mental health is the most neglected especially in developing and underdeveloped countries. Why? Many are illiterate and/or ill-informed about mental health, hence leading to stigmatization of affected persons. The general belief is that supernatural forces, evil spirits and the likes causes mental illness and these beliefs have negatively influenced the attitude of Nigerians towards the mentally ill [2]. This negative attitude is attributed to individuals focusing on the behavior of the affected persons rather than the cause or possible treatment of mental illnesses. This have left much to be desired in improving mental health in Nigeria. There has not been a parallel level of interest on the mental health literacy of young people in Nigeria even though in recent times there have been significant awareness schemes. With an ever evolving world and man’s continuous development, information regarding mental health is of utmost importance.

Recent research has shown that 50% of mental illnesses starts at the age of 14? 3.1 million teenagers suffer from mental health issues yearly and 1 in 12 teenagers with a mental disorder attempt suicide. This shows that mental health disorders are a huge issue for teeming youths globally and in Nigeria. Hence it is important to educate our youths about mental health and how they can access help.
Mental health literacy as a concept encompasses the knowledge, beliefs and abilities that enable the recognition, management or prevention of mental health problems with a range of benefits including early recognition and intervention, and reduction of stigma associated with mental illness [3]. It is understanding how to obtain and maintain positive mental health; understanding mental health problems and their treatments; decreasing stigma related to mental health problems; and, enhancing help-seeking efficacy [4]. It is not just a matter of having the knowledge. Rather it is a knowledge that is linked to the possibility of action to benefit one’s own mental health or that of others. With the above definitions, it can be deduced that mental health literacy is a potent method in curbing stigmatization of mentally ill people, reduce the health inequality rate, reduce the burden on health care services and helping individuals to understand mental health problems; getting help and how to get appropriate treatment.

The Mental health literacy process involves not just vulnerable individuals but also mental health professionals as it aids them in using current global best practice methods to prevent, identify, diagnose, treat, manage and perform follow up various cases as well as promoting awareness campaigns on common mental health issues within the society. By improving mental health literacy of young people in Nigeria, it enables them to make enlightened and informed decisions concerning their mental health. It reduces the mortality rate associated with some mental health diseases such as anxiety and depression is reported to be a leading cause of disability and was projected to become the second most burdensome disease by the year 2020; depression has also been found to be the strongest single risk factor for attempted or completed suicide [5]. Mental health literacy helps youth to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health disorders, knowing the factors that put them at greatest risk for specific mental health disorders, knowing how someone can help themselves and how to easily seek and access mental health information.

Stigmatization and social discrimination has been an issue anytime mental health is discussed. Individuals with mental disorders experience stigmatization from family members, their peers, teachers, coworkers and even strangers. This leads to loss of friendships, social rejection, low self-esteem, lack of self-worth, sometimes depression and suicide. Improved mental health literacy would greatly reduce the burden of stigmatization (social and self-stigma) on an individual. Hence, it is important to teach people especially from their teen years how to understand their emotions including mental disorders they could potentially face. This helps to build form of resistance later in life if they eventually face such situations; as being aware of these concepts and how to handle it would prevent their problems from getting really worse.
Mental health should be incorporated in the basic school curriculum. Using the Nigerian curriculum as an example, it focuses only on the physical part of health and its management. However, mental health is ignored completely. When young people get to understand that mental health is a crucial part of their life, they tend it to take it more seriously and would get help when necessary. The peer education project which is a school based program currently practiced in some schools in the UK and USA aims to give young people the skills and knowledge required to safeguard their mental health and that of their peers. This method can be adopted in Nigerian secondary and tertiary institutions. Awareness campaigns should be organized through various means. Physical campaign methods which includes outreaches and face-to-face education should the amplified. Online and social media campaigns are already doing a whole lot of work with organizations such as Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative (MANI) and Mental Health Drive Initiative (MHDI) are currently on the forefront in the Nigerian space when it comes to online educative campaigns and providing necessary helps to challenged individuals, including suicide prevention. The level of mental health literacy can be improved with different educational approaches and techniques.

Laws governing mental health and management of individuals with mental illnesses by professionals are archaic and needs massive amendment immediately. The inadequacy of resources, facilities and staffs suggests that approximately 80% of individuals with serious mental health needs in Nigeria cannot access care. With fewer than 300 psychiatrists for a population well over 200 million, caring for people with mental illness is left to the under skilled hands of family member. Policies to prevent and protect individuals suffering from mental illness from being subjected to bad living conditions, improper care and treatment and human rights violation should be enacted and implemented. The government should put in motion activities that promote mental health awareness, establishment and management of mental health facilities and rehabilitation centers, provision of standard treatment at subsidized cost, non-criminalization of individuals who attempt suicide and ensure the protection of lives and livelihood of the mentally ill.
With massive individual support (which is only obtainable with improved mental health literacy) and collaboration between the government and private sector organizations, it helps reduce the stigma once associated with mental illness. As more people get to educate themselves about this concept, we will hopefully see a change in the way mental illness is viewed and talked about in the society. I look forward to the time in Nigeria where there is little to no stigma against people living with mental illness, when appropriate care and facilities are available and when mental illness won’t be a barrier to certain opportunities. Now that we need the support of individuals and the government the most, will they step up to the frontline?


1. WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION (WHO),belief%2C%20economic%20or%20social%20condition.
2. Deborah O. Aluh, Obinna C. Anyachebelu, Chibueze Anosike & Ezinne L. Anizoba. Mental health literacy: what do Nigerian adolescents know about depression? INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF MENTAL HEALTH SYSTEMS





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