In the Journals

African Cultural Psychiatry: Special issue of Transcultural Psychiatry

Sociocultural contexts of mental illness experience among Africans (open access)
Akin Ojagbemi, Oye Gureje

Even though mental disorders can be found in every culture globally, the lived experience, expression of associated distress, and interpretation as evidence of deviance from acceptable norms are influenced by social and cultural context (Kirmayer, 2001). Hence, the context of mental illness experience should be a key consideration in the provision of culturally appropriate interventions. Historically, scant attention was paid to the unique sociocultural elements of mental disorders in Africa. In particular, early documentation of mental illness experience, predominantly by colonial psychiatrists, demonstrated little grasp of the social and cultural norms of the people. There were reports suggesting limited understanding of the local languages and modes of expression of distress, as well as failure to properly communicate directly with patients (Lucas & Barrett, 1995). Inferences about the experience of mental illness in Africans were thus made based on this lack of appreciation of diversity (Tooth, 1950). The studies in this issue of Transcultural Psychiatry reflect a growing body of work that is informed by the diversity and lived reality of contemporary African contexts.

A pioneer of psy: The first Ugandan psychiatric nurse and her (different) tale of psychiatry in Uganda
Julia Vorhölter

In Africa, the emergence of a “modern” mental health regime centered on psychiatry is often portrayed as a unidirectional intervention by “the West.” Analyses ranging from medical histories of colonial psychiatry to more recent studies of Global Mental Health focus mostly on the role of external actors and the ways their actions impact(ed) on local populations. Uncritical studies simply reduce the complexity of African therapeutic landscapes to a “treatment gap” and see the introduction of “science-based” mental health approaches as necessary “civilizing” missions. Critical studies emphasize the harms of psychiatric interventions and celebrate local healing practices instead. Both approaches are problematic: they ignore the many interconnections between highly dynamic treatment regimes that cannot be neatly designated as African or western, portray local populations as largely passive, and neglect the multiple ways in which psychiatry has been embraced, adapted, and disrupted by Africans themselves. This article challenges simplistic depictions of “western” psychiatry in Africa by providing a portrait of Rwashana Selina, the first Ugandan psychiatric nurse who—after being sent to the UK in the 1950s for training—became a central figure in Ugandan psychiatry. Based on interview material, I recount her life story and discuss her formative role in the development of psychiatric care in the colonial and postcolonial era. Rwashana’s tale of Ugandan psychiatry emphasizes co-operation, mutual acknowledgments and pluralistic leadership and thus breaks with typical images of and dichotomies between white doctors and supposedly inferior African medical staff.

Ancestral calling, traditional health practitioner training and mental illness: An ethnographic study from rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
Martine van der Zeijst, Wim Veling, Elliot Mqansa Makhathini, Ezra Susser, Jonathan K. Burns, Hans W. Hoek, Ida Susser

This qualitative ethnographic study complements an epidemiological study on first episode psychosis in Vulindlela, a rural area in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. It focuses on two themes that emerged from our data: (1) the calling of the ancestors to become a traditional health practitioner and (2) ukuthwasa, the training to become a traditional health practitioner. The purpose of this study is to describe the ancestral calling, and to explore whether ukuthwasa may help with the management of mental disturbances, including unusual perceptual experiences. We also provide a discussion of the changing sociopolitical context of healing in KwaZulu-Natal, as a background to our study. In-depth interviews were conducted with 20 (apprentice) traditional health practitioners, formal health practitioners, patients and relatives recruited through local traditional health practitioners and a health care clinic. Our results show that the ancestral calling might announce itself with symptoms of mental illness including unusual perceptual experiences, for which some participants consider ukuthwasa as the only effective cure. We found indications that in some individuals successful completion of ukuthwasa might promote recovery from their illness and lead to a profession in which the unusual perceptual experiences become a legitimate and positively valued aspect. We suggest that – in this particular community today, which has been subject to several sociopolitical changes – ukuthwasa may be a culturally sanctioned healing process which moderates experiences that a Western psychiatric system might characterize as psychotic symptoms, providing some individuals with a lucrative and respected role in society.

Psychopathology among apprentice traditional health practitioners: A quantitative study from rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
Martine C.E. van der Zeijst, Wim Veling, Elliot Mqansa Makhathini, Sisanda Mtshemla, Ndukuzakhe D. Mbatha, Sinethemba S. Shabalala, Ida Susser, Jonathan K. Burns, Ezra Susser, Hans W. Hoek

Sociocultural context seems to influence the epidemiology, phenotype, treatment, and course of psychosis. However, data from low- and middle-income countries is sparse. This research is part of a multidisciplinary and multimethod study on possible mental disturbances, including hallucinations, among (apprentice) traditional health practitioners (THPs) who have experienced the “ancestral calling to become a THP” in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The aim of the current article is to examine whether the calling-related experiences can be assessed according to a psychiatric taxonomy. We included individuals who were identified with the calling and who were undergoing training to become a THP (ukuthwasa). IsiZulu-speaking formal mental health practitioners conducted thorough psychiatric interviews that measured psychological experiences with and without distress using the Community Assessment of Psychic Experiences, and psychiatric symptoms and disorders using the Schedule for Clinical Assessment in Neuropsychiatry. Of the 48 individuals who participated, 92% had psychotic experiences (PE), causing distress in 75%; and 23% met DSM-5 criteria for an unspecified psychotic disorder (15%) or mood disorder (8%). In conclusion, in rural KwaZulu-Natal, the ancestral calling may resemble phenomena that psychiatry would understand in the context of psychosis, ranging from subclinical PE to clinical psychotic disorder. Ukuthwasa might have a beneficial influence on the course of psychotic symptoms in some individuals, potentially because it reduces stigma and promotes recovery. Further multidisciplinary research is needed to investigate the psychopathology of the apprentice THPs and the underlying processes of ukuthwasa.

Complementing standard western measures of depression with locally co-developed instruments: A cross-cultural study on the experience of depression among the Luo in Kenya
Tom L. Osborn, Arthur Kleinman, John R. Weisz

Our present understanding of depression relies on a Western nosology that might not be generalizable across diverse cultures around the world. As a consequence, current clinical research and practice may not capture culturally salient features of depression. Expanded cross-cultural research that uses ethnographic methods and local instruments may yield information of clinical utility to enhance culturally sensitive research and practice. In this mixed methods study, we used ethno-semantic interview procedures based on the DSM-5’s cultural formulation process to elicit a broad range of depression features reported by the Luo people of western Kenya. We identified how the Luo conceptualize depression, including idioms of depressive distress, moods associated with persistent negative affect, and other features including context, stressors and support systems. This information informed the co-development of a Luo Depression Questionnaire (LDQ-17). We used the LDQ-17 in a cross-sectional community survey (N = 116) to investigate its association with a standard Western instrument (Patient Health Questionnaire-9; PHQ-9). Factor analysis revealed a one-factor model for the PHQ-9 but not the LDQ-17 for which exploratory factor analysis suggested a three-factor model including cognitive, affective, and physical symptoms. Psychological, environmental/social, and even supernatural causes (i.e., ancestors, God and devil) of these symptoms were identified, as were support systems. Finally, visualizations through multidimensional scaling approaches showed some overlap between the LDQ-17 and the PHQ-9, but the local LDQ-17 identified salient features the Luo associated with depression that the PHQ-9 missed. Our findings illustrate how simple ethnographic procedures may guide the development of local instruments to complement current standardized instruments, potentially enhancing cultural relevance.

Mental health literacy in Ghana: Implications for religiosity, education and stigmatization
Peter Adu, Tomas Jurcik, Dmitry Grigoryev

Research on Mental Health Literacy (MHL) has been growing internationally. However, the beliefs and knowledge of Ghanaians about specific mental disorders have yet to be explored. This vignette study was conducted to explore the relationships between religiosity, education, stigmatization and MHL among Ghanaians using a sample of laypeople (N = 409). The adapted questionnaire presented two vignettes (depression and schizophrenia) about a hypothetical person. The results revealed that more participants were able to recognize depression (47.4%) than schizophrenia (15.9%). Religiosity was not significantly associated with recognition of mental disorders but was positively associated with both social and personal stigma for depression, and negatively associated with personal and perceived stigma for schizophrenia. Moreover, education was found to be positively associated with disorder recognition, and negatively with perceived stigma. Finally, perceived stigma was positively associated with disorder recognition, whereas personal stigma for schizophrenia related negatively to recognition of mental disorders. In conclusion, education but not religiosity predicted identification accuracy, but both predictors were associated with various forms of stigma. Findings from this study have implications for MHL and anti-stigma campaigns in Ghana and other developing countries in the region.

Contextualized understanding of depression: A vignette study among the !Xun and Khwe of South Africa (open access)
Thijs N den Hertog, Eva Maassen, Joop T V M de Jong, Ria Reis

Colonial misconceptions about the absence of depression and the lack of a psychologization of distress among Africans have long been refuted. However, cultural variation in depression in terms of symptomatic expression, conceptualization, explanatory models, and social responses is widely acknowledged. Insight into the cultural variation of depression is useful for providing appropriate care; however, few studies have explored cultural understandings of depression in African settings. In a depression vignette study of two displaced and marginalized San communities in South Africa, we conducted 20 semistructured interviews to explore causal interpretations and strategies for coping. Causal interpretations consisted of several dimensions, including life struggles and physical, psychological, and spiritual interpretations. Respondents primarily focused on life struggles in terms of socioeconomic and interpersonal problems. They described coping strategies as primarily addressing negative emotional and psychological affect through social support for relief, comfort, distraction, or advice on coping with the situation and emotions. In addition, religious coping and professional support from a social worker, psychologist, support group, or medications were mentioned. Findings illustrate that depression should be understood beyond individual suffering and be situated in its immediate social environment and larger sociopolitical setting. Interventions for depression therefore may benefit from a multilevel approach that addresses socioeconomic conditions, strengthens local resources, and fosters collaboration among locally appropriate informal and formal support structures.

Sociality and temporality in local experiences of distress and healing: Ethnographic research in northern Rwanda (open access)
Yuko Otake, Teisi Tamming

Prior studies have traced sociality and temporality as significant features of African healing. However, association between the two has not been explicitly investigated. This paper explores how sociality and temporality are associated in local experiences of distress and healing among northern Rwandans. The ethnographic research, including in-depth interviews, focus-group discussions and participant observation, was conducted in 2015–2016, with 43 participants from the Musanze district who have suffered from not only the genocide but also post-genocide massacres. Findings identified common local idioms of distress: ibikomere (wounded feelings), ihungabana (mental disturbances), ihahamuka (trauma), and kurwara mu mutwe (illness of the head, severe mental illness). One stage of distress was perceived to develop into another, slightly more serious than the previous. Social isolation played a significant role in the development as it activated ‘remembering’ and ‘thinking too much’ about the past and worsened symptoms. Subsequently, healing was experienced through social reconnection and a shift of time orientation from the past to the future; the healing experience traced a process of leaving the past behind, moving forwards and creating a future through community involvement. The experiences of distress and healing in this population were explained by two axes, i.e. sociality (isolation – reconnection) and temporality (past – future), which are associated with each other. Given the sociality–temporality association in African post-war healing, the study highlights that assistant programmes that facilitate social practice and future creation can be therapeutic and be an alternative for people who cannot benefit from talking-based and trauma-focused approaches.

“An automatic Bible in the brain”: Trauma and prayer among Acholi Pentecostals in northern Uganda
Lars H. Williams

This article examines the role of prayers for traumatized survivors of war within a Pentecostal-charismatic community in post-conflict northern Uganda. It argues that becoming part of a church group and learning certain regimes of prayer can work toward symptom relief and recovery for people suffering from traumatic experiences. The study builds on 13 months of ethnographic fieldwork in rural northern Uganda, with extensive participant observation of religious practices and interviews with rural church congregants. The article attempts to show, through a single case narrative, how individual prayer practices are trained and learned and to identify features of prayer that may alter the individual experience of distress. Analytically, the article builds on Tanya Luhrmann’s scholarship on prayer and applies this conceptual framework to a post-conflict context. The study expands on Luhrmann’s concepts of prayer as an emotional technology in order to understand how psychiatric symptoms are managed within a Pentecostal-charismatic community. The article further argues that a conceptual focus on training of skills can contribute to debates on the universal versus particular characteristics of psychiatric expression and concepts of mind. This argument contributes to current debates on non-clinical ways of managing traumatic experiences and to debates about models of mind in different cultural settings.

Self-identification, mode of diagnosis and treatment, and perceptions of relationships with medical providers of South African Xhosa-speaking traditional healers
A. S. J. van der Watt, N. Menze, K. Moxley, I. Mbanga, S. Seedat, P. Dass-Brailsford

There is widespread use of traditional medicine in treating common mental disorders in South Africa. We aimed to (i) explore the self-identification of traditional healers (THs; how they refer to themselves, e.g., as healer, spiritualist, sangoma, etc.); (ii) determine if different types of THs treat different conditions (physical/psychological) or use different modes of diagnosis and treatment; (iii) identify factors that influence the willingness of THs to refer patients to biomedical hospitals; and (iv) compare TH practices between two provinces. Participants included Xhosa-speaking THs (mean age = 54.10, SD = 13.57 years) from the Western (n = 50) and Eastern (n = 68) Cape provinces. Participants completed a questionnaire regarding self-identification, mode of diagnosis/treatment, relationship with biomedical hospitals, type of condition(s) treated, and a Patient Health Questionnaire. There were significant associations between the type of TH (as self-identified) and (i) mode of diagnosis, (ii) mode of treatment, and (iii) type of condition(s) treated. Spiritualists, male THs, and THs who had previously been hospitalised for a mental disorder were more likely to treat mental disorders. THs who had previously been hospitalised for mental disorders were more likely to report a willingness to refer patients to biomedical hospitals. Findings highlight the complex practices of Xhosa-speaking THs. Collaboration between THs and mental health care professionals could be facilitated by focusing on male THs, spiritualists, and THs who have previously been hospitalised for mental illness. Future research should provide clearer operational definitions of the type of TH included.

“Medical treatments are also part of God’s gift”: Holy water attendants’ perspectives on a collaboration between spiritual and psychiatric treatment for mental illness in Ethiopia
Laura Asher, Ribka Birhanu, Yonas Baheretibeb, Abebaw Fekadu

In Ethiopia, traditional and spiritual treatments, such as holy water, are used by people with mental disorders instead of, or alongside, psychiatric services. Collaborations between traditional and psychiatric providers may increase access to evidence-based treatments and address human rights abuses. This study aimed to explore the perspectives of holy water attendants on a novel collaboration between holy water and psychiatric care, at St Mary’s Clinic, Entoto, Ethiopia, and to characterize the users of this service. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 14 holy water attendants, who run group houses for holy water residents and are paid by family members. A thematic analysis was conducted. Socio-demographic and clinical data were extracted from the records of all service users who had attended the clinic. A total of 174 individuals have attended the clinic in the three years since it opened. The majority were diagnosed with schizophrenia. Holy water attendants provide a partial gatekeeping role to psychiatric care, selecting which of their clients they think will benefit and, for these individuals, facilitating attendance to the clinic and antipsychotic medication adherence. Psychiatric care was felt to be compatible with holy water by some, but not all, attendants. However, family members often had the “final say” in individuals attending the clinic, in some cases putting up strong resistance to using psychiatric care. A novel collaboration is acceptable to some holy water attendants and may increase access to psychiatric care amongst people with mental illness living at a holy water site in Ethiopia.


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