Exploring Language and Stigma: Mental Illness Communication Patterns Among the Yoruba of Nigeria

Author: Timothy Olanrewaju Alabi (Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria)
Speaker: Timothy Olanrewaju Alabi
Topic: Ethnographical Language Work
The GLOCAL AFALA 2023 General Session


An ongoing debate in the literature suggests that language or words used in communicating around and for those living with mental illness can exacerbate or improve their experiences of stigma, healthcare outcomes, and recovery processes. Building on this body of literature, this ethnographic study explored narratives of mental illness at different levels (home, community, and mental care facility). In Abeokuta, a Yoruba town, where the study was conducted, concepts used in describing mental illness or person living with it include but not limited to ‘iwin’ were’– madness, ‘igbona’/ilẹ gigbona/missiles, sickness’, ara-ẹ-koya’- body unwellness, o-rẹ – weakness. All these local concepts, though referring to the same or similar illness condition, have different and broader social connotations that can be further classified into anatomic/biological, behavioural/relational, functional/natural, moral/punitive, and cosmic/ecological connotations. The findings revealed that the appropriateness of concepts adopted during conversation by people of Abeokuta was usually determined by their ‘social closeness’ with the person who was discussed and/or the place of discussion. I conclude by arguing that the language of conversation among the Yoruba in the study location was not only indicative of association with the person living with mental illness but also suggestive of their disposition and possibly their readiness to support the utilisation of certain mental health care resources.

Keywords: Abeokuta, mental illness, language, stigma, Yoruba