Is it witchcraft? Mental health in the African context

Mental health in the South African context still carries a lot of stigma. Lack of information and resources creates a breading ground for fear around the issue. Some people might believe it to be the result of witchcraft while others might view it from a faith based perspective believing it’s punishment. With both these examples emphasis is placed on an external source being the cause of mental health difficulty and that by applying some sort of remedy the person will be cured or healed.

A study investigating the knowledge and attitudes of the general South African public toward mental illness found that stigma and misinformation regarding mental illness exists. The recommendation was that education around these disorders amongst the public would presumably lessen stigmatisation and encourage the use of currently available and effective interventions.

The assumption when living in urban areas is that all people are exposed to the same knowledge about issues such as mental heath. Recent encounters when engaging about mental health provided evidence for me that there is a lack of information about the topic and it might be due to a number of factors such a language and beliefs. This left me thinking about the role of traditional healers in mental health especially in the South African context. Do they even play a role? Stories have surfaced of the collaboration that exist within some hospitals with regards to traditional healers and doctors working together on more physical health matters in aid of patients who have strong beliefs in traditional medicine. Having the traditional healer working with the doctors reassures the patient that their beliefs are considered and that the doctors recommendations will be explained in a way they understand along with the traditional healers insights and input.

In psychology one of the considerations that has to be made in order to view behaviour as abnormal is that it has to live outside of cultural norms. Too often, developed countries make recommendations without the culture of African countries or regions taken into consideration. Traditional healers or faith leaders have the potential to move things in the right direction on the ground as they have a stronghold on much of the population. The African Association of Psychiatrists and Allied Professionals (AAPAP) recognises the importance of traditional healers and in some African countries have partnered up with tradition healers. This has lead to an increase in people with mental health difficulty being referred to them.

We have to aim to live in an inclusive society. One that accommodates all its people. Often these two worlds are pitted against each other. They are portrayed in such a way that they can’t work together or lean on the other for better understanding and context for more clarity. The country isn’t using indigenous knowledge systems enough for primary prevention, such as making use of traditional healers to better aid those with mental health distress especially in more rural areas. Trying to gain knowledge about mental health difficulty from a traditional perspective can be helpful in increasing equality and access to treatment for all.

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