Traditional Healers and Mental Health

By: Othandwa Lidlozi

“Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all”.

I read this off a Facebook status, a couple of days ago. It is sad how true this is. It is also inspiring the amount of response this and similar quotes have received from mental health activists and those who advocate for mental health. You see, we’ve spent a lot of time raising awareness and driving information campaigns, it is becoming more acceptable to speak about mental illnesses these days. That is encouraging, at least. What many of us don’t speak about, are the different methods of therapy and methods that lead to our healing. There is no “one size fits all” cure for mental health, and this is why I say that the spiritual side should not be ignored.

A couple of years ago, I read about an African tribe that refused the ‘traditional’ form of therapy where one person sits with a therapist and talks about their problems. While this method works for some people, the tribe believed that it was the worst kind. They reckon that sitting for an hour, in a small space, talking about your problems is exactly the thing that may leave one depressed. They recommend healing in groups, out in the sun, with lots of laughter and love. They say that this is a method that has worked for a lot of the members of their tribe. Now, the accuracy of this story may be a little shaky and the source questionable, but it drives the point I’m trying to make home. While mental health is not a cultural thing, some studies have shown that alternative practitioners may play an important role in addressing mental health care needs by offering treatment that is culturally appropriate. In many traditional African belief systems, mental health problems are perceived as due to ancestors or by bewitchment (this is what I mean when I speak of the spiritual side). Traditional healers and advisors are viewed as having expertise in these areas. Whether we like it or not, people with mental health issues will want to consult a traditional healer. So, instead of adding to the problem by putting stigma on this, maybe we should focus on the collaboration between the native and the western way of dealing with mental illnesses. I believe that this will produce better results than forcing patience to hide their visits to a sangoma.

While psychiatric services will be able to assist with symptom control and medication, they are considerably, rarely able to deal with the fears of bewitchment in their patients. This is where they could use the help of indigenous healers. Instead of dismissing the beliefs of their patients completely, it would be wise to hold their hand and involve their traditional healer in this journey to their mental health.

You see, a lot of mental illnesses are caused by social factors such as isolation, neglect and abuse, social failures or loss. When we encourage a person who is already triggered to lose their spiritual belief, we are only adding to the problem, I believe.

Bear with me, I’m simply spewing thoughts that have haunted me for a while now. While I’ve done some research, this is not a presentation of facts. I’m merely asking that while we are in this topic of mental health, let’s consider the peace of mind and the stress free nights that come with trusting something divine, a higher power, to always have your back. And before we dismiss traditional healers from this fight against depression, let’s think about what we’re asking people to live without.

Image sourced online

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