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Mental Health: An African approach to mental health and wellness

Mental ill health is often attributed to spiritual causes and also perceived as some form of punishment

Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a meaningful contribution to their community.

Mental health is a critical component of individual, family, community and national wellbeing and prosperity.

While Africans are not a homogenous group of people, there are some cross cutting cultural values that many African people’s share that can help promote wellbeing including mental wellbeing.

As we commemorate Africa Day, we can reflect on the impact of being African on our mental health and wellbeing.

How do African cultural values promote mental health and wellbeing?

Cross-cutting values that have been identified among many African people include the family and community focused way of life; the principle of hunhu/ubuntu, the importance of interconnectedness and interdependence that has been described in many African languages; hospitality and self-sacrifice as well as importance of peace of mind.

These values correlate well with many of the principles of maintaining mental wellbeing.

Dr Martin Seligman described five key principles that can promote wellbeing, including mental wellbeing. These are:

  • Building positive emotions: including peace, gratitude, love; hope. Many African cultures value the importance of being at peace with oneself and being at peace with others and having a culture of being grateful and expressing one’s gratitude, love, care for others and hospitality for family and community, as well as always having hope for a better tomorrow.
  • Engagement in productive work: work is often linked to providing for one’s immediate and extended family in Africa. This often gives a sense of meaning to many people’s lives.
  • Investing in relationships: strong, meaningful relationships are key to mental wellbeing and many African cultures value the importance of being connected with family and being part of a community. Relationships are key to individual and community growth.
  • Striving for meaning in life: to live for something beyond oneself, for a purpose greater than one’s personal gains is a key part of mental wellbeing. Many African communities value the role of the individual within the community (what one can do to help one’s family and community) as well as the role of the community in the life of the individual (how the community can help sustain the individual).

How can African cultural values be a barrier to mental health and wellbeing?

  • Conservativeness: many African cultures promote the value of being conservative. This can make it difficult to express emotions openly and lead to mental health challenges
  • Beliefs about what causes mental illness: mental ill health is often attributed to spiritual causes and perceived as some form of punishment. This can make it difficult for those affected to seek appropriate, timely help.

An African approach to mental health care

Our culture will often influence how we think, how we process our emotions, how we behave, and how we adapt to challenges.

Culture must be considered in all aspects of health care particularly mental health care.

 How can mental health care be more culturally sensitive?

  • Promoting emotional awareness and healthy self-talk as part of being at peace with oneself
  • Promoting emotional intelligence and building strong relationships as part of being at peace with others
  • Promoting hunhu/ubuntu and interdependence rather than independence as part of building a strong support network
  • In line with the family and community-centric African nature, involving families and communities in promoting mental health awareness, in early detection of mental health problems and in psychosocial support for those struggling with mental health challenges
  • Developing culturally sensitive ways of diagnosing mental health challenges including the development of indigenous screening tools informed
  • Considering cultural background and including cultural beliefs in the treatment of mental health problems

If you think that you or someone that you know may be struggling with a mental health problem, please contact your nearest health care provider and get help.

*Dr Chido Rwafa-Madzvamutse is a consultant psychiatrist. Feedback: WhatsApp: +263714987729

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