The Deadly Somali Cure For Mental Illness

“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies?” —Miguel de Cervantes, “Man of La Mancha”

In A Nutshell

One in three Somalis suffer from some form of mental illness, but unfortunately, their symptoms are usually mistaken for demonic possession. As a result, they are tossed into cages with hyenas, creatures which can supposedly drive the spirits away. However, one man nicknamed “Dr. Hab” is trying to end this barbaric practice and open mental health hospitals across the country.

The Whole Bushel

Looking for a new vacation destination? Well, you better stay away from Somalia. According to the Global Peace Index, as of 2013, Somalia is the second most dangerous country in the world, second only to Afghanistan. This war-torn country is rife with violence, corruption, and drug addiction (thanks primarily to a narcotic known as “khat”), and all this anarchy is taking a toll on the Somali people, both physically and psychologically. A staggering one in three Somalis suffer from some form of mental illness, and this is especially shocking when you realize the global average of mental illness is one in 10. And thanks to extreme poverty and lack of a central government, there aren’t many doctors or hospitals to help people with psychiatric diseases. Desperate for answers, superstitious Somalis have had to come up with cures on their own, and some of them are a little . . . drastic.

Many Somalis don’t view mental illness as a disease. Instead, they believe it’s a form of demonic possession. As a result, “healers” focus on ways of driving the evil spirit out, and these rituals involve a lot of pain and torture. Perhaps the most sadistic treatment is the “hyena cure.” Some Somalis believe hyenas are mystical creatures, able to peer into the spirit world, so people suffering from psychiatric disorders are often tossed into cells where they are “examined” by these four-legged “doctors.” Hyenas don’t care for humans who invade their territory, and they will viciously attack their unlucky victims, scratching and biting them, but then that’s the whole point of the treatment. Many believe the hyena is using its magical powers to chase the demons away, and if the “patient” survives till morning (and many, especially children, don’t), he or she is supposedly cured. However, most people can’t afford this costly cure which runs about $500 (that’s more than most Somali families make in an entire year). Those who can’t pay for such outlandish therapies usually just chain their loved ones up, sometimes at home, and sometimes to trees, abandoning them in the wild to die.

Fortunately, there is one man who’s trying to make a difference. His name is Abdirahman Ali Awale, and he goes by the alias “Dr. Hab.” Dr. Hab isn’t a real doctor, and he doesn’t have any impressive degrees. He’s received a grand total of three months of training from the World Health Organization, but despite his educational shortcomings, Dr. Hab has become the most respected mental health provider in the nation. Three times a day, the Somali people can hear his commercials playing on the radio, begging them to bring their friends and family to his hospital rather than throwing them into cages with deadly animals. So far, Dr. Hab has opened six centers across Somalia, and he helps people suffering from illnesses like depression and schizophrenia. And even though he’s constantly struggling to get medical supplies and must constantly deal with dangerous superstitions, Dr. Hab has managed to save over 15,000 lives. He might not have a Ph.D., but he’s a lot more effective, and has a way better bedside manner, than any hyena.

Show Me The Proof

Global Peace Index rankings
BBC News: Where hyenas are used to treat mental illness