Home Institution

Barnard College

Publication Date

Spring 2017

Program Name

South Africa: Community Health and Social Policy


Mental illness is a burden of disease that, in many countries, is neglected; South Africa is no exception. There are many reasons for this, including but not limited to a lack of specialized mental health personnel in primary care settings, a budget that favors South Africa’s communicable disease epidemic, and a continued stigma around mental illness. Whenever discussing the healthcare system in South Africa, however, it is important to note another parallel system of care, one with little to no budget or regulation: that of traditional healing. It is estimated that over 70% of South Africans have at some point consulted a traditional healer, and, particularly in rural areas, traditional healers outnumber doctors 10:1. Traditional healers treat a wide range of illnesses, mental illness included.

Therefore, through this project, I aimed to gain a greater understanding of traditional healers’ conceptualizations of mental illness and investigate how biomedical practitioners understand and view this parallel healthcare system, in the hopes of obtaining some insight on the possibilities for the two fields to collaborate. To investigate these ideas, I utilized semi-structured interviews of both traditional healers and biomedical practitioners, and also presented traditional healers with case vignettes of particular mental illnesses for more specific and comparable responses using the Short Explanatory Model Interview (SEMI).

The results of this project showed that traditional healers do have an understanding of mental illness, but tend to classify psychotic disorders as being more exemplary of mental illness than non-psychotic disorders, which were more commonly understood to be ‘stress’. It also showed that there appear to be certain spiritual or culture-bound psychological illnesses that traditional healers are far better equipped to treat than Western practitioners, a fact which the Western practitioners understood and accepted. While both groups seemed willing to collaborate with each other and realized that doing so would be beneficial for many of their patients, they also acknowledged that there were currently very few avenues for this to occur in the context of mental health.


African Languages and Societies | African Studies | Alternative and Complementary Medicine | Community Health | Mental and Social Health | Mental Disorders | Social and Cultural Anthropology


Article Location