Muslims WorldWide

170,000 Mentally ill tied to trees and left to die in Somalia

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation – Mon, 7 Oct 2013 01:28 PM

Author: Emma Batha

Men walk on a beach in front of a building destroyed during a war in Mogadishu June 27, 2012. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

In Somalia there’s a belief that a mentally ill person can be cured by shutting them in a room with a hyena.

Mentally ill people in the war-ravaged country are often chained or locked up. Others are tied to trees and abandoned when their families are forced to flee fighting.

In one of the most moving radio interviews I’ve heard in a long time, psychiatric nurse Abdirahman Ali Awale, who is commonly known as Dr Habeeb, told how he was reduced to tears every day by what he sees.

“I have saved many, many patients who have been left to die. They have been tied to a tree and abandoned simply because they are mentally ill,” he told the BBC World Service.

Somalia has one of the world’s highest rates of mental illness with one in three people affected, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

But there has traditionally been almost no help. Somalia’s health sector was destroyed over two decades ago as the country descended into civil war.

The relentless shelling, fighting, killing and maiming, along with the repeated displacement of communities, has taken such a toll that Habeeb is on record as saying he doesn’t believe anyone in the whole of southern and central Somalia has good mental health.

The psychiatric nurse was spurred to set up the first of his six clinics in 2005 when he saw five mentally ill women being chased down the road by small boys.

He says his centres have since treated more than 15,000 patients. The most prevalent condition is post-traumatic stress disorder.

“This is usually what we see with many of our younger patients who come in,” says Habeeb. “We also see depression. A lot of our patients are very sad. They exclude themselves from society and they are very quiet and sad and stay in a corner.”

After the war, he believes the second biggest contributor to mental health issues is the widely used stimulant khat. The plant, which is chewed for its euphoric effects, has been linked to psychosis and depression.


But Habeeb doesn’t just treat people. He is on a mission to dispel the myths and stigma surrounding mental illness and end harmful practices.

This is done through radio broadcasts, lectures and classes.

“We tell them … that mental health illness is just like any other illness,” he told the World Service’s Outlook programme.

Many Somalis attribute behavioural problems to bad spirits and seek help from religious leaders or traditional healers. One of the most extreme treatments involves locking a person up with a hyena.

“In Somalia, there’s this belief that hyenas can see everything including the thing that causes mental illnesses,” says Habeeb.

“Two hyenas were brought from the bushes and brought to Mogadishu. Patients were locked in a room with the hyena with the belief that when the thing that caused the mental problem sees the hyena it would leave the body of the patient and the patient would be fine after that.”

This treatment is not cheap – the cost can be around $560, according to Habeeb. It’s also highly dangerous. Patients are left with long lasting trauma, physical injuries and even die, according to a WHO report on mental health in Somalia.


WHO says most mentally ill people in Somalia are chained up or imprisoned.

Habeeb told the BBC more than 170,000 people have been “locked and … left to die”.  And no one in authority is talking about it.

You don’t have to look hard to find numerous images on the internet showing people chained to trees, rocks and beds. Many are chained for years on end, leading to long-lasting trauma and physical harm. Some commit suicide.

But the use of chains is often an act of desperation by families rather than cruelty, according to WHO. Families may believe they are preventing the person harming themselves or others, and that this is their only option.

Habeeb’s organisation, together with WHO, is pushing for an end to chaining.

But addressing mental illness is a very low priority in a country so devastated by fighting and hunger. It has also been ignored by international agencies.

Habeeb believes this is because treating mental health illness is expensive and does not bring quick results.

Not surprisingly, the work is exhausting.

“I’ve seen countless patients locked and left to die and that takes a toll mentally,” Habeeb says.

“I am alone. I am one person and I’m dealing with big, big, big problems that no one is ready to admit. Personally, I cry seven to eight times a day. I’m a big man, I’m a grown-up man, and in this society it is not common to see a grown man cry.

“I’ve cried on TV, I’ve cried in public places, I’ve even cried in front of presidents for them to speak about this problem, even for one day.”


27 thoughts on “170,000 Mentally ill tied to trees and left to die in Somalia

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    • Please read my Comment (long, but I think worth it) RIGHT ABOVE and you might think differently about the mentally ill, no matter who or where they are. It could be you someday, just as it was me for some years. I agree, Islam is EVIL; but it is those beliefs that cause people to do evil things. But Islamists are people—REALLY!! (Yes, you might call Islam mental illness. Be glad you didn’t get born into a family with those beliefs.)
      Pray for them, and for God’s (Jesus) wisdom regarding how governments and individuals can counter that evil deception, including the truth about the Koran.
      With Jesus’ Compassion for “you” (He LOVES you, very much!!),
      Love, Soteria Allen (& Jesus!!)


      • You are the most bad EVIL, I have ever seen. I have worked a lot of Christian people, and I have been trained by some, but the way you are thinking, Soteria Allen and Sabido Robles, is much much different. I believe Islam is the best religion over the world, and I beg Allah that you may one day realize so. We believe in Jesus as a prophet, but Mohamed as the our prophet and messenger for the latest religion. Islam is the solution, and the peace religion. Terrorism is not a religion.
        Anyway, I am sorry to try to correct someone like you, because you don’t understand. Moreover, you seem uneducated, the way you utter is bad smelling….sorry


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  16. I just prayed for this need and this man who has sought help for better treatment for the mentally ill in Somalia; be become known as someone to help, for Christians to come to his aid and help him have a well funded and in other ways provided for ministry.
    There is a very great need here that God (Jesus) wants to meet. Like this man, God is moved by compassion for these people. I believe I would be writing this even if I myself haven’t experienced mental illness, but I have, including schizophrenia (includes, for example, hearing voices & thinking they are telling the truth & feel the need to obey them!) . But, praise the Lord, though I still experience some mental torment, I believe just as with the great help I’ve experienced already from knowing Jesus (by giving my life to God, resulting in being ‘born-again’) and His loving friendship, and also by learning how to do spiritual warfare against the devil’s attacks on my mind through the use of the Word of God (the Bible) against the devil (evil spirits, I will experience total healing!! I’m no longer on psychiatric medication and have no more Dr visits. And I know from God’s Word that I definitely will experience FULL HEALING!!
    “Nothing is too difficult for the Lord!!! (Luke 1:37)
    We can look forward to Dr. Habeeb getting much help for these patients. Just like Dr. Habeeb, Jesus (God) is moved by compassion for these people and for Dr Habeeb also. I believe God wants to help them with a hospital(s), helpers for Dr Habeeb, and loving Christian people helping on many ways, including coming in to help the patients come to know Jesus and learn the Word of God well enough to be able to have sound minds (& emotions, and bodies too!). “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:25-27)

    With Jesus’ Compassion 4 America! (& the world!!)
    Love, Soteria (&Jesus!!)

    My little blogs (but a BIG God):


Published under FAIR USE of factual content citing US 17 U.S.C. § 107 fair use protection, Section 107 of the Copyright Act of 1976 and UK Section 30(1) of the 1988 Act.

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