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Decolonising Mental Health: Ubuntu in Action

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Decolonising Mental Health: Ubuntu in Action



As African countries unite to celebrate Africa Day, there is need to reflect on Africa’s resilience, strengths, rich cultural heritage, and diversity. However, secret storms of mental health issues are brewing behind the long abandoned sound of the African drum. There is an urgent need to take the mental health bull by the horns through embracing an Afrocentric model. Mental health is a basic human right which is vital for personal, community, and national socio-economic development. It is an important component towards the creation of a robust, pacific, and prosperous world. Consequently, it is imperative to decolonize mental health in Africa to move towards a Pan-African model which strengthens sovereignty, and integrity towards achievement of African development goals as outlined in Agenda 2063.
In the western world, mental health is often perceived mainly as a personal issue, rather than a societal issue. In contrast, through African lenses, mental health is intricately linked to the social, economic, religious, and political systems. Trauma, poverty, chronic diseases, and social injustice take a toll on mental well-being of every community. Consequently, mental health issues such as increased substance abuse, suicide, depression, social isolation, violence, broken homes and poor productivity escalate.
There is an urgent need to serve from the nourishing African pot filled with culturally relevant resources needed to bridge the prevailing mental health gap. The African ancestral wisdom promotes social justice, community-centred care, empowerment, and prevention of mental health problems. Furthermore, it promotes connectedness with other people, with ancestors, and the environment. Such decolonized approach to mental health inclines towards collective healing whist preserving cultural identity and traditions.
Mental health models in African countries must be reflective of the historical struggles such as slavery, colonialism, apartheid, systemic oppression, displacement, and related historical trauma. A critical mass of African scholars and policy makers must therefore spearhead the development, nurturance promotion of relevant Afrocentric mental health models. Such models must value cultural contexts and complexities such as collectivism, community based-evaluations, emotional intelligence, as well as practical problem solving. It is high time ancient African healing practices and cultural beliefs are developed and adopted as evidence based models for mental health care.
Music and dance have been a source of individual and community therapy in African communities for centuries. During the liberation war in Zimbabwe, freedom fighters used this ancient power of music to boost morale, cultivate cultural pride as well as a source of healing and comfort. Regardless of this clear background, it is worrying to note that the current mental health models in Africa were imported or imposed. Most of these models were set up by colonial institutions making them difficult to fairly and effectively apply to indigenous Africans.
Community mental well-being will continue to be a moving target as long as western designed mental health models are employed to solve African mental health issues. Indigenous languages, religion, tradition, gender roles, family, and geography must influence mental health models. Currently, there is an apparent lack of African research voices in many core mental health academic publications, guidelines and reports. The recently introduced Heritage-Based Curriculum in Zimbabwe (2024-2030) is a significant milestone towards decolonizing mental. Its key aspects promotes mental wellbeing and critical thinking through respecting cultural identity, value national history, respect for traditional religions and heritage sites, and emphasis on Ubuntu among others.
Afrocentric mental health models must recognize the importance of cultural sensitivity, community engagement, and social justice. Mental health has always been deeply entrenched in African culture, tradition, religion as well as social organization for centuries tracing back to pre-colonial era. However, westernization has left Africa prone to cultural erosion and reliance on biomedical approaches. Additionally, it has left a great scar of inferiority complex which makes most Africans think that white is a sign of purity and black a sign of evil. There is therefore an urgent need to decolonize mental health to restore Afro pride.
Initiatives in Zimbabwe such as the “Friendship bench” have shown great progress towards promoting community mental health. Such community-based initiatives make use of trained community lay workers to provide mental health support and therapy at grassroots level. The initiatives have significantly transformed the treatment of less severe mental health problems in cost effective and culturally appropriate ways. They have also contributed towards the prevention of severe mental health problems through identifying and addressing risk factors such as drug and substance abuse at community level. Undiagnosed and untreated mental health conditions usually create negative long-term impact.
Correspondingly, the introduction and expansion of the community radio stations initiatives and local newspapers is helping to promote community mental health. This is being achieved through providing accessible and relevant mental health resources to communities. The community radio stations have significantly improved the self-esteem, resilience, and psychological sense of community especially for marginalized communities. Additionally, they are helping to promote cultural identity which is under severe threat from western media.
While the West tends to deride traditional healers or faith leaders, it is these people who have a stronghold on the greater population in Africa. They have the potential to derail or revolutionize mental health care in Africa. This sector must therefore be mainstreamed in the mental health care model as para-professional since they can often be the first point of care. Maximising on the experience and influence of faith leaders and traditional healers will yield positive results in community mental health programs.
Mainstreaming mental health services in other funded programmes such as emergency response, maternal health, and education can help to make them more accessible at lower costs. Given the huge demographic transition in Africa, mental health issues must be integrated into all programmes, and sectors. Specific target must be given to young people as a special demographic group. Involving young people in the planning and implementation of mental health services is crucial to ensure the relevance and responsiveness of these services to their unique needs. Through culturally informed programs such as the Zimbabwe First Lady, Auxillia Mnangagwa’s Nhanga/Gota/Ixhiba initiative, young people will be equipped with life skills. This is done in preparation of complexities of adolescence, adulthood, marriage and world in general. Such complexities are threats to community mental health.
Mental Health funding must also shift from psychiatric institutions in favour of community-based care, and social interventions thereby reducing the mental health stigma. This will ensure that people living with mental illnesses are not held in long-term institutions such as Ngomahuru or Ingutsheni. However, they are supported to live and thrive within their own communities. Institutionalization is a Western approach which is alien to the African culture of Ubuntu. Social support is a key facilitator for resilience, and recovery from mental illnesses. Social support is rightly recognised as strong in many communities in Africa, though the process of rapid urbanisation is disrupting traditional support systems.
In conclusion, Africa Day serves as a reminder that there is great need to adopt a decolonial approach to mental health. African Policy makers, researchers, media, traditional, and religious leaders must push towards mental health models that honour cultural diversity, social resilience, and collective humanity whilst being informed by their rich cultural heritage. The interconnectedness of individuals, families and communities must be the cornerstone of a supportive ecosystem for mental wellbeing. Such collaboration will create an environment where community and individual mental health is cherished, leading to the attainment of national, regional, and global development goals.

Alphious is a registered Intern Community Psychologist – AHPCZ (A/PSY0796)
[email protected]

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