The Spirit of Transformation
A devout Muslim, Sadat Abiri is helping foster understanding of Islam here, and of mental health issues in her native Nigeria
PHOTO BY NICOLE PEASLEE
Sadat Abiri wants to end the stigma of mental illness in Nigeria.
As activity chair for the Islamic Community of Madison Area Committee, Sadat Abiri provides sensitivity training to populations unfamiliar with the teachings and practices of her faith. She gives tours of the Islamic Center’s mosque to school groups, participates in interfaith panel discussions, and is a board member of the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice.
She is also an active member of a monthly support group for Muslim women at Madison’s Neighborhood House Community Center, which enables participants to discuss sensitive issues in a safe environment. This coming together fosters a sense of belonging among participants, and the grassroots education Abiri spearheads is helping boost understanding and harmony between members of different faiths.
Having seen this approach succeed in Madison, Abiri is determined to use similar tactics—along with her professional experience—to change the harmful stigmas surrounding mental illness in Nigeria. She has a master’s degree in public health from UW–Madison and is a psychiatric nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital. Internships at Journey Mental Health Services showed her the comprehensive support network available to patients and their families in Madison, and she realizes Nigeria lacks such infrastructure.
To get her project started, Abiri is applying for a World Health Organization grant to provide initial financial support for a team of public health professionals’ travel to Nigeria. The team would launch a wellness initiative to educate citizens about psychiatric and psychological disorders and to improve access to the latest pharmaceuticals. On
a macro level, this work aims to reshape national policy regarding long-term mental health care and community support systems.
Harmful stigmas regarding psychological conditions perpetuate from generation to generation in Nigeria, Abiri notes. Families hide relatives exhibiting signs of mental illness from their communities as long as possible. Then, with the country’s deep-rooted tribal heritage, the first—and sometimes only—line of treatment is via traditional “healers.” These practitioners focus on expunging demonic influences, witchcraft or past “sins” believed to cause mental health issues, creating significant barriers to proper diagnosis and treatment.
Abiri believes members of Nigeria’s dominant religions, Islam and Christianity, could help educate their communities about current research and standards in mental health treatment. They could help debunk the superstitious beliefs of the past, which feed the negative ideas and emotions surrounding mental health issues in Nigeria.
She also hypothesizes that aware Christians and Muslims will be more supportive of those suffering from mental illnesses. This education and support could have an enormous influence on a psychiatric patient’s sense of self and the measure of value that individual’s life holds in Nigeria today.
Abiri believes that, between health professionals and faith-based community efforts, her project can help transform mental health treatment in Nigeria.