Traditional and spiritual healers play a crucial role in mental health care

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"75% of South Africans experiencing common health disorders are left untreated." Photo: Getty Images
"75% of South Africans experiencing common health disorders are left untreated." Photo: Getty Images

South Africa has only 977 registered psychiatrists serving more than 60 million people. This results in 75% of South Africans who experience common mental health disorders being left untreated.

Now mental health professionals are calling for a significant collaboration between Western medical specialists and African traditional healers to provide primary health care to South Africans experiencing mental health disorders.

South African Society of Psychiatrists (SASOP) believes that traditional and spiritual healers could play a critical frontline role in improving access to treatment for common mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse and overcoming those attaching a stigma to these.

Read: 'Some things work when you believe': the traditional healer's role in fertility treatment

During lockdown, inequality of access to mental health care has worsened due to the disruptions of the Covid-19 pandemic such as restricted movement and health care resources being limited to Covid-19 cases.

Speaking on this matter, SASOP member and registered psychiatrists Dr Lerato Dikobe-Kalane believes that the low numbers of people with mental health disorders receiving treatment is due to lack of resources and access.

Coupled with resistance to seeking treatment due to low mental health literacy, stigma and discrimination, and the false perception that treatment is ineffective or unnecessary since the problem will eventually disappear.

There is a need for greater awareness of mental health and encouraging people to seek help, says Dr Dikobe-Kalane.

She believes that spiritual healers can play a significant role in early identification, referrals and alternative treatment modes.

Dr Dikobe-Kalane says that at least 200 000 South African traditional and spiritual healers are highly influential in their communities and consulted for advice or treatment.

Also read: Mental illness during and post-pregnancy is more common than we think. Let's normalise talking about it

One of the traditional and spiritual healers, Zikho Ezethu Zatu, confided in us about her own mental health and how she uses her own experiences to help her clients.

Zatu believes that God and the ancestors put healers through certain challenges so that when they heal people, they heal them with compassion and kindness.

"8 out of 10 of my clients are always suffering from mental health issues, so I work with mentally challenged people all the time," Zatu told News24.

Part of what Zatu does as a spiritual healer is to bring light and direction to those who need it the most.

She says that "ancestors are there to bring light into people's lives, sometimes, that means redirecting them to the right direction – a direction that can only be brought by people who see beyond the human eye."

Zatu says that she tells her clients what they need to do, but she also refers them for therapy. 

She says that her treatment is not sufficient to help with mental health illnesses; hence the referral to a therapist will assist with holistic healing.

Some of the people who consult Zatu are deeply burdened with their past and are unable to move forward. When she deals with such clients, she tells them where the problem is and points them in the right direction.

Studies show that alternative practitioners could play a huge role in addressing mental health care needs by offering culturally appropriate treatment.

Dr Dikobe-Kalane says that there is evidence that informal counselling and support from spiritual healers and traditional healers can provide families with ways to relieve stress and mild symptoms of common mental health disorders like anxiety and depression.

Greater collaboration between Western mental health practitioners and traditional or spiritual healers would help educate the traditional practitioners on common mental disorders, treatment options, and the resources for referral for more specialised treatment.

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