Nollywood has stepped up plenty in the last decade or so, and become we can be proud of. From oldies (sort of) like Ije and Figurine, to recent hits like Half of a Yellow Sun and October 1, we’ve seen better and better movies and TV shows.
But there’s one area Nollywood — and Nigerian TV in general — still falls short.

Yup, you guessed it.

Mental health.

Honestly, if Nollywood and Naija TV were our teachers, and mental health our curriculum, we’d all barely make it past Primary One! And that’s sad, because media has such a huge influence on how we see and think about things. (I’ve written before about how even Tinsel isn’t exempt.) It’s a massive opportunity just down the toilet.

But today’s not the day to rant. Today, I want to talk about what we might wrongly believe about mental health and illness if we actually believed Nollywood (and Nigerian TV as a whole — although I bet it’s probably not too different with other African countries).

Anyway, in no particular order, here are the top 7 myths from Nigeria’s film and TV scene…

#1. People with mental illness are violent and unreasonable

Okay, I know I said these things are in no particular order, but this might well be number one misconception our media reinforces. I’ve written a series of articles on this (here, here and here), but suffice to say here that it’s simply NOT true. People with mental illness are no more violent than anyone else.

#2. Mental illness makes people dumb

“Dumb” as in lacking sense, I mean. This misconception is connected to the first one, but it’s slightly different: it’s the idea that mental disorders make people act stupid. On the contrary, though, mental illness doesn’t necessarily affect intelligence. I once saw a chap faking mental illness — you know how I knew? He was acting silly!

#3. There’s only one type of mental illness

Almost every instance of mental illness on Nigerian media is the same type. You’d totally be forgiven for thinking “mental illness” was only one specific diagnosis. But it’s so much more. Yes, there are disorders (and they’re not that frequent) that make people act strangely (although the way they are portrayed in media leaves much to be desired).

As for the commonest mental disorders, depression and anxiety disorders: how often do you see those? And would you ever have guessed how frequent they were from watching TV? Almost certainly not.

#4. Mental illnesses come from curses

Our number one top cause of mental illness would probably be curses. It might be different in cities like Lagos and Abuja (but is it really?). In our less urban areas, though, curses are a major risk factor for mental illness.

People are sometimes thrown out of home because the family didn’t want the curse coming on them. (I kid you not.) And even when the person with a mental disorder is accommodated, it’s often at arm’s length. You know, just in case – which is sad, because these things are medical problems.

This also ties in to the next Nollywood-perpetuated belief…

#5. Mental illness is not a reason to go to the hospital

It’s not like you ever explicitly hear this said, but besides Tinsel (which must be commended for trying in that area), how many movies or series have you seen where someone with mental illness was treated in hospital? (I’m serious, let me know in the comments where that happened.) Typically the first visit is to religious or traditional healers. (Which fits with believing it’s caused by a curse, right?)

The problem with that? In my real-life work, few people come to the hospital without having spent time trying out other options. Except that’s usually enough time for the problems to significantly worsen. Medical treatments are available for many mental disorders, contrary to what you might think, they actually work. Think about that.

#6. Mental illness is caused by hard drugs

Most psychiatrists are familiar with this one. We often see people whose families are convinced that they are using hard drugs for no other reason than that they’re mentally ill. When movies don’t show people with mental illnesses as being cursed, they show them as having used drugs. But many people use drugs without becoming ill, and many become ill without using drugs. (That’s many as in millions.)

#7. Mental illnesses are sudden

You know the typical scene when someone first develops a mental disorder, right? It’s always sudden. One minute the person is acting normally, and the next, everything’s out of whack.

Not in real life. In real life, it takes weeks and months, sometimes years. It’s rare that it happens in days, and even then, suddenness may point to a more physical problem.

So what do we do about all this?

First, let’s get this straight: our media isn’t really the problem. It’s not like these beliefs are new – they mostly existed before. They’re not so much instilling them into people as perpetuating ideas we already have.

And that’s the real issue. Media has the power to influence our views, and when those who are behind it only address stereotypes instead of the complexity of reality, everyone loses.

This isn’t new. The battle against stigma in HIV/AIDS was won with the help of the media. Media helped to fight the misconception surrounding it (such as HIV/AIDS not being a real thing). But imagine how messed up it’d have been if HIV/AIDS had been depicted in ways reinforcing our wrong beliefs about it.

That’s exactly what still happens with mental disorders.

So no, our media isn’t the problem; but they aren’t being part of the solution. They can be, and they should. Because we deserve better, and we should demand better.

Question: Have you yourself had any of these ideas about mental disorders, whether from movies or TV or from other sources? Which of them do you still hold on to?

I first published this post in Bella Naija. This version is lightly edited for clarity.

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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