Is there a language barrier to seeking medical and mental health help for kids in SA?


According to Guinness World Records, with 16 in total, Zimbabwe holds the number one spot for the world's most official languages. 

Not far behind in the multilingual melting pot, South Africa's 11 official languages reflect our heritage and diversity as a nation.

But as much this diversity should be a source of pride, particularly on International Mother Language Day, it's also a great time to start a conversation about representation (or a lack thereof), and how diversity could be a source of exclusion – especially regarding access to vital services in which language plays a central role.

“Talking about your mental health, struggles and stresses is a deeply personal process and it can be difficult to express oneself in a second or third language. It’s important that everybody has access to counsellors who can speak their language,” explains Judy Strickland, a child counsellor and the founder of Hope House Counselling Centre in Cape Town. 

Misdiagnosis and the inability to provide competent service to patients is a complaint for not only mental health service providers but the South African healthcare sector in general. 

In a study by the University of the Free State, professor Louise van den Berg found that "in a large, urban paediatric hospital in Cape Town only 6% of medical interviews with the parents of patients were conducted in their first language." 

She points out that "particular disciplines such as mental health... which rely heavily on communication and cultural competence for diagnosis and management, are particularly vulnerable to these linguo-cultural barriers."

Van den Berg proposes that collaboration between the medical and linguistic disciplines could be a key initiative to overcome the language barrier. 

"There's a call for interdisciplinary collaboration between language practitioners and healthcare professionals to find viable solutions to communication challenges posed by linguo-cultural barriers within the multilinguistic South African population, in order to honour the right of every citizen to equitable health care." 

Have you ever had difficulty finding help regarding your pregnancy, child or mental health from a practitioner who didn't understand your mother tongue? Please share your stories (anonymously if you want to) by sending a mail to, and we may publish it.

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