An Overlooked Consequence of Civil War: Mental Illness in Somalia

An Overlooked Consequence of Civil War: Mental Illness in Somalia

By Sirad Hassan

Somalia is a beautiful country of storytellers, poets, and nomads.

The history of the nation is troubled by the onset of a civil war that afflicted a tremendous amount of pain and trauma. Entire communities were disturbed by the continuous violence from the conflict; the direct cause of an unprecedented refugees crisis. Dadaab, along the border of Kenya and Somalia, is the largest refugee camp in the world—home to thousands of Somalis.

Case studies of individuals from Somalia highlight the disheartening prevalence of repressed memories of traumatic events that resurface through bouts of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and suicidal thoughts. According to a study run by the World Health Organization (WHO), Somalia has the distinction of having the highest prevalence of mental illness in the world. One in three Somalis are afflicted with psychological disorders, but this incredibly high statistic is staunchly juxtaposed by the utter lack of mental health facilities in the nation. The WHO only recognizes five mental hospitals, located in Hargeisa, Berbera, Bosaso, Garowe and Mogadishu.

An assessment of north-east and south-central Somalia by the WHO demonstrates that when Somali residents of the region were asked “Who is a mentally ill person?” a majority said that they were “a crazy person.” The next popular response was “a person who has no emotions.” Responses such as these are the reason that the de-stigmatization of mental health in Somalia is absolutely necessary to humanize mentally ill patients and allow for their proper recovery.

In Mogadishu, the capital once known as the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean”, has one mental health hospital that is spearheading the revolution. Habeeb Public Mental Hospital, founded in November 2005 by Dr. Abdirahman Ali Awale. His facility was featured in an AJ+ documentary and Dr. Awale is shown chanting with his patients in Somali, “Mental illness is a normal disease. Mental illness can be cured.”

“We protecting the rights of mentally ill people. We go everywhere. We are seeking mental ill [people] in chains,” said Dr. Awale, also known as Dr. Habeeb.   

The approach towards mental health in Somalia is dominated by chains. Chain containment of the mentally ill is widespread across the country, as families are often unaware of how to treat their loved ones. WHO estimates that 90% of patients who do find treatment were chained up at least once in their lifetime.

Abdullahi, pictured above, was kept locked up for his mental illness for 17 years by his family. He was confined to a small tin hut for the entirety of this time, away from his family. Accessibility to treatment was near to impossible as his family is incredibly poor. As his life was lived only within the proximity of where he was chained, Abdullahi’s only happiness throughout the day came from listening to classic Somali songs on his mobile phone.

Maryan Hassan, a nurse, eventually took Abdullahi into her care when she learned about his situation. After nearly 17 painful years, he was given a chance at chains-free treatment in a mental health hospital in Hargeisa.

“I love helping people who are mentally ill,” reflected Hassan, “There is nothing better. I think anyone who helps will be rewarded in this life and in the next life.”

This effort to reform mental health access to Somalis fortunately goes beyond the Horn of Africa. In Seattle, WA there is a wellness program known as Daryel dedicated specifically for Somali diaspora women who need personalized treatment for their trauma in the form of yoga—the result of a measure towards more culturally competent care.  

Traditional care need not be terminated, but rather integrated with medical advances that will allow for proper care to Somali patients. Reading Quran to ensure spiritual health should not be the only way to care for someone, as it should be coupled with the right medicine for each patient’s diagnosis. Social stigma should not keep those in need away from proper care, as this increasingly urgent mental health crisis in Somalia should soon come to an end.

In the words of Dr. Habeeb, mental illness can be cured.

You just need the right resources.


If you are compelled to help Dr. Habeeb run his unprecedented project in Mogadishu, here is the official GoFundMe link you can go to:

1 thought on “An Overlooked Consequence of Civil War: Mental Illness in Somalia”

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