Back to Africa Check

Recycled mental health stats said to be from World Health Organization continue to circulate in Nigerian media

IN SHORT: A national Nigerian newspaper made a number of claims – many of which we have previously fact-checked – about the state of mental health in the country in a September 2022 article. But three out of four of the claims we checked relied on outdated data or couldn’t be corroborated.

One in four Nigerians have a form of mental health illness according to a September 2022 article in a national newspaper. The Leadership attributed this statistic to the World Health Organization (WHO). 

The newspaper was reporting on mental health in Nigeria. In the article “Stemming the scourge of suicide” the publication also made other claims.

We looked at four, some of which we have previously investigated. Has newer data become available?

Claim

“The World Health Organization estimates that every one in four Nigerians have a form of mental health illness.”

Verdict

Incorrect

Mental illnesses or disorders affect people’s behaviour, thinking and emotions. They differ widely but the most common are anxiety disorders and major depression

It’s incorrect that one in four Nigerians have “a form of mental health illness”, Dr Mark van Ommeren, a public mental health adviser at the WHO's department of mental health and substance abuse, told Africa Check.

In 2019 we investigated the same claim, which was also attributed to the global health body. We found that one in eight Nigerians had had a mental illness in their lifetime. The most common were depression and anxiety disorders.

The evidence for this was a WHO study published in 2004, using data collected from Nigeria’s six geopolitical zones in 2002.

There is no newer data on this.

Claim

“In other words, 50 million Nigerians have a mental illness.”

Verdict

Exaggerated

Epidemiology is the study of the distribution of health outcomes and disease. The epidemiology of mental health disorders was measured in a number of different ways, Dr Florence Baingana, a WHO regional advisor for mental health and substance abuse, told Africa Check.

These were:

  • Point prevalence, or the prevalence measured at a particular point in time. Prevalence refers to the share of a population with an illness or condition – so both new and existing cases. It is often confused with incidence, which focuses only on the occurrence of new cases.
  • One-year prevalence.
  • Lifetime prevalence. 

“The figure of one in four is often used in relation to lifetime prevalence, that is, a mental health condition at any point in time in your lifetime,” Baingana said. 

“So this cannot be used to extrapolate the point prevalence of mental health conditions in Nigeria. If there are 200 million people, a rough estimate is 50 million, which grossly overestimates the number by applying a lifetime percentage to a point-in-time population figure.”

Baingana said a newer WHO study published in the Lancet medical journal in 2019 estimated a point prevalence of 22% in conflict-affected populations. This was close to the one in four figure, or 25%. 

“But this would only apply to those in the northeast of Nigeria,” she said. This region has since 2009 seen the Boko Haram insurgency, which has killed tens of thousands of civilians and left millions displaced.

“We estimated that the prevalence of mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, was 22.1% at any point in time in the conflict-affected populations assessed. 

“The WHO’s estimate is one in eight people.”

Claim

“More than 75% of people with mental, neurological and substance use disorders receive no treatment for their condition at all.”

Verdict

Correct

The Leadership attributed this stat to the WHO. Africa Check previously spoke to Prof Oye Gureje, the director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Research and Training in Mental Health, Neurosciences and Drug and Alcohol Abuse at the University of Ibadan. He told us the estimate was correct according to a study on mental health published in 2004

He said those with severe forms of anxiety, depression and substance abuse in Nigeria rarely get any treatment for their conditions.

We rate this claim as correct as there isn’t more recent data on the claim.

Claim

“The World Bank report in 2016 estimated the rate of suicide in Nigeria as 9.5 per 100,000 population.”

Verdict

Incorrect

The article attributed this claim to Dr Monday Igwe, the medical director of the Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital in Enugu, southeastern Nigeria

The WHO defines the suicide mortality rate as the number of suicide deaths in a year, divided by the population and multiplied by 100,000.

The agency relies on household surveys, data from a sample registration system, such as the deaths recorded in a specific hospital, or precisely planned studies to generate estimates of the causes of death in countries like Nigeria which have low coverage of death registration.

The WHO’s 2016 Global Health Observatory data repository put Nigeria’s suicide rate at 9.5 cases per 100,000 of the population in 2016. The rate was slightly higher for men (9.9) than for women (9.2). 

The WHO global health estimates for 2000-2019 published in 2020 is the most recent global data on suicide rates. 

We found that, according to the WHO, Nigeria's accurate crude suicide death rate was notably lower, at 3.5 suicides per 100,000 people in 2019.

Further Reading

Add new comment

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
limit: 600 characters

Want to keep reading our fact-checks?

We will never charge you for verified, reliable information. Help us keep it that way by supporting our work.

Become a newsletter subscriber

Support independent fact-checking in Africa.