Weak, crazy or witchcraft? Mental illness and cultural stigmas


We recently shared an article on postpartum depression on our Facebook page and received this unsettling comment:

"Our community; How we are raised; those symptoms are labeled as witchcraft, some say you are lazy, they may say anything to bring u down and make you ignore the problem, not get any help. We are expected to be strong, patient, take Care of the baby, the husband and maybe other kids then smile while doing it. Its damaging cz you'll see this happen to your mom, aunt and think "it will be better" but no!!! you'll grow up and also face it. Like its taboo, to just need taking care of yourself. Sometimes its hard being a young black woman." [sic]

The comment was hard-hitting – it pointed out exactly how culture can influence one’s perception of mental illness.

At least one in three South Africans will suffer a mental health issue in their lifetime. And depression costs our economy millions in terms of lost productivity.

Mental illnesses do not discriminate; they don’t distinguish between race, gender, culture or socio-economic status – yet, the treatment and opinions are often influenced by cultural bias.

Cultural stigmas in South Africa

An article published on the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) includes the following: "Although the prevalence of depression in black South Africans is mostly uninvestigated due to language and cultural barriers, studies indicated that the prevalence is shockingly high."

Elmarie du Plessis, a clinical psychologist, adds that there is a rather large cultural misunderstanding in these communities as some patients have to keep their condition a secret when they go back to their traditional communities to visit families, because Western medicine and psychologists are frowned upon.

The article published by SADAG also says the following: "Depression is seen as a personal weakness – this attitude is especially prevalent in the black community, and especially where women are concerned. Black women are viewed as nurturers, caretakers and healers of other people, and are supposed to be strong."

According to Elmarie, traditional communities see mental illness as factors from “outside” – angry forefathers and witchcraft, for example.

“Many people never go for treatment because of the fear of judgement and the stigmas clinging to mental illness, especially if these stigmas are bound to cultural beliefs and religion,” she says.

From a Western perspective, many Christians believe that depression and anxiety are merely character flaws and even possession by evil spirits. An article published in the journal Psychotherapy in Australia mentioned that mental illnesses are often associated with criminal behaviour and portray a picture of sufferers as “unpredictable, violent and aggressive”.

Cultural stigmas across the world

It’s not only in the multicultural context of South Africa where mental illnesses are stigmatised. It’s a worldwide phenomenon across global cultures – covered extensively in Psychotherapy in Australia:

  • The Vietnamese believe in karma and consider mental illness as a form of punishment.
  • The Japanese view mental illness as a form of weakness.
  • Many Christians and Muslims have strong religious principles that prevent them from seeking medical help.
  • In older Indian regions, mental illnesses are also believed to be “from the devil”.

Not just cultural but also social stigmas

Even if you do not fall into one of these cultural groups, chances are you have come across some form of stigma associated with mental illness.

If you suffer from a mental illness, you can probably recall remarks such as “pull yourself together” or “sort yourself out” or “she’s just looking for attention”. These remarks are all examples of the stigmas and misconceptions about mental illness.

Elmarie says that it’s important to realise that mental disorders are treatable just like any other disease.

“People with depression are often considered 'too weak to cope' by those around them. They are told that depression is not a ‘real’ illness and that it’s all in their heads. Another myth we encounter is that medication will become an addiction.”

How to help those close to you

Mental illnesses present in many different way and can be difficult to diagnose.

SADAG lists a couple of the most common warning signs to look out for in friends and family:

  • A persistent feeling of sadness, emptiness or hopelessness
  • A significant change in appetite
  • A significant change in sleeping patterns
  • A loss of interest in social activities and hobbies
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Severe mood swings
  • An increased use of alcohol, nicotine or other substances

Call SADAG on their Mental Health Line at 011 234 4837 if you need help or more information.

Image credits: iStock

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