Indian Journal of Social Psychiatry

: 2016  |  Volume : 32  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 320--324

Social distancing attitudes toward the mentally ill and victims of sexual violence among college students in Southwest Nigeria

Taiwo Opekitan Afe, Olawale Ogunsemi 
 Department of Medicine and Psychiatry, Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ogun State, Nigeria

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Taiwo Opekitan Afe
Department of Medicine and Psychiatry, Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ogun State


Background and Objectives: Negative perception and distancing attitudes toward individuals with mental illness and victims of sexual violence are prevalent in many societies and cultures, Attitudes toward these two groups of individuals in sub-Saharan Africa remains negative in the larger society. However, not much survey has been done among college students who represent an educated youthful generation that can usually be targets for positive reorientation programs. The aim of the study was to compare social distancing attitudes using hypothesized social situations involving individuals with mental illness and victims of sexual violence. Methods: A cross-sectional random survey was carried out in two federally-funded institutions in Lagos Mainland, Nigeria. Results: One hundred and seventy-two students responded. Negative social distancing attitudes were expressed toward both groups by college students. Negative perception and distancing are high among college students toward both groups with higher negativity toward individuals with mental illness (10.10±0.7) than with sexual violence (9.16±1.25). Conclusion: There is a need to focus on enlightenment programs on mental illness and sexual violence among college students in higher institutions.

How to cite this article:
Afe TO, Ogunsemi O. Social distancing attitudes toward the mentally ill and victims of sexual violence among college students in Southwest Nigeria.Indian J Soc Psychiatry 2016;32:320-324

How to cite this URL:
Afe TO, Ogunsemi O. Social distancing attitudes toward the mentally ill and victims of sexual violence among college students in Southwest Nigeria. Indian J Soc Psychiatry [serial online] 2016 [cited 2022 Oct 3 ];32:320-324
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Full Text


Discrimination, stigmatization, and alienation remain a major barrier for individuals with mental disorders and victims of sexual violence living in many societies.[1],[2],[3] These attitudes are manifested in social behavior towards individuals with mental illness and individuals who experience sexual violence.[4],[5] Historically, individuals with mental illness have always endured negative stereotypes. They were seen as dangerous and generally unfit to take up social roles in many communities. Unfortunately, in many societies, these perceptions are still pervasive.[3],[4] More often, the focus has been more on mental illness with little attention paid to an equally silent group of individuals who suffer the effects of sexual violence within the society. The majority of these victims are youths, who are often left to deal with their issues alone, with little support from peers.[6] To address this lapse, the study compared attitudes among youths within the college system and using hypothetical social situations to survey perspective toward these groups of individuals in Southwest Nigeria.

In Nigeria, negative perceptions are common due to the entrenched cultural beliefs about causation, which places undue blame on the individuals and paranormal forces.[3] This stereotypic view alienates these individuals from meaningful, fulfilling social relationships, debarring their opportunities to fully integrate into the society, and from getting needed orthodox treatment.[7] As a consequence, many individuals with mental disorders find it a challenge to disclose their medical condition within their social network and to avoid stigmatization and social distancing behavior.[8] Families of such individuals also share part of the effect of stigmatization and labeling. Many family members will rather keep it secretive and deny having them as members of their families in social circles. Studies have reported that such deep-seated negative societal attitude and behavior can be a factor in the increasing incidence of mental disorders.[9]

Similarly, victims of sexual violence suffer discrimination and stigmatization.[5],[10] It is a painful experience that is considered a taboo and kept secretive in societies that are deeply conservative, male-dominated, and entrenched in cultural beliefs.[11] The stigma affects both gender but tilts unfavorably toward females.[12] This attitude is a contributory factor to the underreporting and lack of official statistics about sexual crimes in Nigeria. Victims of sexual violence rarely discuss their experience in social gatherings and usually keep it secretive.

Efforts to address the discrimination and resultant social distancing behavior in this group of persons have focused on public enlightenment and educational programs, especially among the nonenlightened members of the public.

Students of higher institutions form a major part of the youthful and enlightened population in Nigeria. The attitude and behavior they hold toward these two groups of individuals will help us to evaluate enlightenment and interventional programs targeting the social attitude and behavior of youths toward these two sets of individuals. More importantly, understanding the nature of distancing behavior will help us in adopting holistic interventions in efforts to reduce negative distancing behavior and build up support groups among the upcoming youthful generation.

The study explores social distancing that involves any action or behavior that socially excludes, or informally ostracizes any individual or minority group perceived to be social deviants, and sanctioned by a larger group or society.[13],[14] It does not involve formalized statutory actions rather an informal social exclusion from close interaction with the larger majority.[14],[15]

The rationale for this study lies in the growing incidences, and discrimination against individuals with mental illness and sexual violence among the youth population and the lack of sufficient data to help build interventional programs among college students as mentioned above. In this light, the aim of this study was to evaluate the nature of social distancing toward individuals with mental illness and victims of sexual violence among college students in Lagos, Nigeria and compare distancing behavior between victims of sexual violence and individuals with mental illness.



The study was a cross-sectional descriptive survey. Respondents were recruited from two higher institutions situated within the Mainland area of Lagos, which has the highest concentration of tertiary institutions in Lagos, Nigeria. The selection was done using simple random sampling out of the four (4) postsecondary institutions within the Lagos mainland. These postsecondary institutions (Federal College of Education, Akoka and Yaba College of Technology, Yaba) are Federal institutions that admit students from all over the Country. They help train middle- and high-level manpower for the educational, technological, and administrative sectors of the nation. They run 3–4 year courses leading to certificates and degrees in a host of different fields.


A simple random sampling method was adopted in recruiting respondents from the two colleges. As noted earlier, these two institutions were chosen from a list of four (4) federally-funded tertiary institutions within the Mainland Area of Lagos metropolis. To obtain a sample that was representative of all students of different departments in a way that will not disturb academic activity, the author categorized the departments into two categories (1) Category A and (2) Category B. Category A consisted of departments that were science-related while Category B consisted of nonscience-related departments. In each category, two departments from each year of study were randomly chosen for the survey. Respondents were recruited from students who were attendees at the compulsory lectures for each department at each year of study in both institutions. Before the start of each compulsory departmental lecture, due permission was taken from the course coordinators. Respondents were usually chosen from a numbered anonymous list of attendees obtained before the beginning of each lecture. After explaining the purpose of the research to the attendees and assuring strict anonymity, the first respondent was chosen using a table of random numbers. Subsequently, every second attendee was chosen in arithmetic progression. Informed consent was obtained from each respondent before they filled out the self-administered questionnaire. In all 172 respondents were recruited for this study. Trained volunteers were used in conducting the survey in both institutions within a similar period. The survey was conducted within a 4 month period between March and July 2013. The ethical board of the Lagos Mainland Hospital approved the study protocol.


The self-administered questionnaire used had two sections. The first section covered basic sociodemographics such as age, sex, tribe, marital status, department, and the year at college. The next section assessed attitudes across social situations. The items were adapted from the Bogardus Social distance scale.[16] The original scale consisted of 7 social situations that enquired about closeness along racial groups in these 7 social situations by (1) marriage/legal partnership (2) personal friends (3) neighbors in the same street (4) as co-workers in same occupation (5) as citizens in same country (6) as noncitizens in my country (7) would exclude from my country. The original scale was a Guttmann scale with a score of 1–7 indicative of the extent of agreement or disagreement with the social situations. The scale was modified similar to the modification by Adewuya and Makanjuola 2005[17] and limited to six items of measure for ease of administration and to achieve target objectives. The areas of measure included (1) family relationship, (2) conversation with victims, (3) maintaining friendship, (4) sharing a room with victims, (5) dating or marrying victims, and (6) blaming victims. The sixth item was worded to assess attitudes toward blaming victims among the respondents. This form of scale had been widely used in Nigeria.[17] The test-retest was done on 50 students over a period of 4 weeks at the Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ogun State. The correlation coefficient was 0.8.

The authors adopted a grading method for the modified version of scale that was simple and similar to the grading method used by Adewuya and Makanjuola 2005.[17] Responses were graded on a 2-point scale as follows: (a) definitely not/probably not, (b) probably yes/definitely yes. The responses to each item were scored on the basis of answers that indicated either high or low social distance in that particular item of measure. Thus responses to:

Items 1, 2, and 6 were graded as follows:

Definitely not/probably not = 1Probably yes/definitely yes = 2.

While responses to items 3, 4, and 5 were scored as follows:

Probably yes/definitely yes = 1Definitely not/probably not = 2.

The mean score for the total distancing attitude for each respondent in both categories were calculated.

Data analysis

The data were analyzed using the Statistical Package for Social Sciences (SPSS), version 17 released 2008 by SPSS Statistics for Windows, Version 17.0 (Chicago: SPSS Inc). All statistical tests were at 5% probability level (P < 0.05). Comparisons of the mean were made using either the independent t-test or the one-way ANOVA where appropriate.


Sociodemographic characteristics

The age range of the students ranged from 15 to 38. Mean age was 22.9 ± 4.4. More than half 52.3% (n = 90) of them were females. Majority, 83.2% (n = 143) were never married, 90.1% of them (155) were in science-related fields. While 74.4% (n = 128) were either in the 1st or 2nd year at school [Table 1].{Table 1}

Distancing attitude

There was a higher distancing behavior toward individuals with mental illness (10.10 ± 0.70) than those with victims of sexual behavior (9.16 ± 1.25). A higher percentage of respondents, 64.5% would be ashamed if a family member was mentally ill as compared to 60.5% with similar feeling toward a family member who was sexual molested. Close to two-thirds, 65.1% would not hold a conversation with individuals with mental illness as compared to 38.4% who would not hold a conversation with victims of sexual violence [Table 2].{Table 2}

On maintaining friendships, 37.2% would not maintain friendship with victims of sexual violence as compared to 73.3% who would behave similarly toward individuals with mental illness, 86.6% would not share a room with someone with mental illness when compared with 41.9% with a similar attitude toward victims of sexual violence.

Across sociodemographic variables, there were inconsistent associations with social distancing behavior toward victims of sexual violence and individuals with mental illness as shown in [Table 3]. However, significant differences were observed in the distancing behavior across different age groups toward victims of sexual violence. Males had higher mean scores (10.17) than females (9.99) though the differences were not significant at P = 0.07.{Table 3}


To our knowledge, this survey is probably the first study to compare distancing attitudes in both groups in Nigeria. In this survey, it was observed that there was a high degree of social distancing attitude toward individuals with mental illness and victims of sexual violence among college students with a higher negative tilt toward those with mental illness. Sadly, it is not new that individuals with mental illness usually suffer much from discrimination, stigmatization, and social distancing in Nigeria.[2],[8] Distancing attitude as observed was predominant in situations that gave opportunities for closer physical contact e.g., sharing a room with someone with mental illness. Students feel less willing to hold conversations, sustain friendships with colleagues who develop mental illness. Comparable negative distancing attitude toward individuals with mental illness has also been reported among another set of University Students in the Southwestern part of Nigeria.[17] Our findings mirror result of a distancing attitude that has been reported among communities within the Southwest region of Nigeria.[18] Previous studies have adduced this attitude to cultural beliefs and practices.[4] This cultural orientation, beliefs, and attitude fuels a negative pervasive influence on distancing behavior even among the enlightened youths within the college system. Despite years, there has been little change in attitudes even among students in tertiary institutions.

The results of this study seem to paint a different observation to earlier reports that suggested that negative attitudes, especially toward the individual with mental illness are less pervasive among the enlightened youths.[19],[20] Being mentally ill bears considerable stigmatization from among educated and enlightened youths who will form a major part of the future generation. Significantly, a high percentage are willing to terminate friendships with someone who is mentally ill probably suggesting that little support in friendship would be given to such individuals within higher institutions.

Similarly, the distancing attitude in varied social situations was higher toward individuals with mental illness than victims of sexual violence. It is noteworthy from this study that many students will feel greater shame to have a family member with mental illness than being sexually molested. Furthermore, in comparison, a larger percentage would be more willing to maintain friendship or date victims of sexual violence rather than date individuals with mental illness. Regardless of the lesser negative attitude, victims of sexual violence also have to endure a fair share of shame and distancing behavior from peers.

A worrisome finding is to note that a percentage of our respondents will blame individuals in both groups for their situation, especially the victims of sexual violence. The apportioning of blame has the potential to form a basis for sanctioning distancing attitudes toward individuals within the college walls. For individuals with mental illness, beliefs that psychoactive substances and paranormal forces account for most common causation within this region may partly be responsible for blaming such victims.[4] Blaming victims of sexual violence stems from a traditional stereotypic view of the female gender within an unfriendly male-dominated cultural environment.[12] Social distancing toward victims of sexual violence debars them from social support from colleagues and may be a factor in the continuation of the culture of silence by many victims.


Although the study cannot be truly representative of the majority of college students in Nigeria, some of the views expressed may largely be conjectural; nevertheless, it highlighted the high negative distancing attitudes toward both groups of individuals among college trained set of youths. It is not safe to assume that college youths are free from cultural perceptions regarding these individuals who suffer greatly from this alienation in social networks. These negative perceptions can potentially stay until late adulthood.


It is a social malady to still find a high degree of social distancing toward people with mental illness and victims of sexual violence among college youths. Practical and purposeful engagements with college students and enlightenment campaigns in both media and online social networks about mental illness and sexual violence within the college system must be aggressively pursued. Target audience in enlightenment and participatory programs must include the college students in order to help reduce social distancing toward individuals with mental illness and victims of sexual violence and help toward building a more tolerant youthful populace.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.


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