Go Away Evil: Global Mental Health and Traditional Healers

APR. 03, 2012

Global

While making Unlisted, a documentary about the impact of my father’s mental illness on our relationship, I became interested in global mental health. I soon learned that it is the most ignored of all health areas.

In truth, global mental health is the most global of all health areas. Think about it: many illnesses like malaria only affect certain parts of the globe.

I started to film mental health stories outside the United States, interviewing leaders and advocates. This summer, a new website, Take5Now.com, will be launched where these stories and other resources will be brought to life. It is intended to foster interactive dialogue about mental health from a global perspective.

To stay informed about the exact launch date for Take5Now.com, please join my Facebook page.

You can also view a five-minute film, Go Away Evil, right now on YouTube. The film was shot in South Africa about a woman, Buyiswa, living with bipolar disorder. When Buyiswa started hearing voices in her twenties her mother took her to a traditional healer who gave her herbs. Nothing improved.

Spending time in South Africa I learned how traditional and religious healers are indeed where many Africans go for mental health care. This is the same throughout Africa, India and in many other countries.

Most developing countries spend less than one percent of their health budgets on mental health and eight out of 10 people with severe mental illness go untreated. Educational campaigns that link mental illness to a bio-medical paradigm are practically nonexistent. Consequently, in many low income countries the age-old explanations of demon possession and spells cast by jealous neighbors persist.

Filming globally for my other upcoming film on global mental health, Where in the World Is Mental Health?, people shared with me instances of being physically abused, from hair pulling to beating, by traditional healers. I questioned these stories at first because they sounded too cliché, but as I heard more of them, I was forced to accept the sad truth of their reality.

While there can be harm caused by traditional healers, whether through physical abuse or ineffectiveness, to advocate for doing away with them would nonetheless be counter-productive. The healers are an integral part of a community and often bring comfort and understanding to many individuals and their families.

For Go Away Evil, I interviewed a traditional healer and watched many of her clients chat with her and collect herbs and pieces of fur. I could feel the strong rapport she had with them.

I have been excited to learn about programs that train traditional healers about serious mental health. Trainings focus on which individuals could benefit from Westernized approaches to mental health treatment. The good news is that many healers welcome the training. They are grateful for being recognized and respected by the larger health establishment. 

Meanwhile it is reassuring to know that many developing countries are finally realizing the burden that mental illness imposes on its citizens. They have begun to dedicate more resources toward services and treatments. Studies show that psychological and pharmacological interventions are cost-effective in developing countries. In fact, they are just as cost-effective as antiretroviral treatment for HIV/AIDS. As evidence-based interventions increase, the sole reliance on traditional healers in many parts of the world will diminish.

The challenge is to empower all players in all communities to have the knowledge and resources to help end suffering and to foster connections between us.

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