Explanatory models of mental disorders and treatment practices among traditional healers in Mpumulanga, South Africa
Objective: In many traditional belief systems in Africa, including South Africa, mental health problems may be attributed to the
influence of ancestors or to bewitchment. Traditional healers are viewed as having the expertise to address these causes. However,
there is limited information on their explanatory models and consequent treatment practices. The present study examines traditional
healers’ explanatory models (EMs) and treatment practices for psychotic and non-psychotic mental illnesses. Method: 4 focus group
discussions (8 healers in each group) and 18 in-depth interviews were conducted. Four vignettes were presented (schizophrenia,
depression, panic and somatization) and traditional healers’ views on the nature of the problem, cause, consequence, treatment and
patient expectations were elicited. Results: Traditional healers held multiple explanatory models for psychotic and non-psychotic
disorders. Psychotic illnesses appear to be the main exemplar of mental illness and were treated with traditional medicine, while nonpsychotic
illnesses were not viewed as a mental illness at all. Additionally, traditional healers do not only use herbs and substances solely
from “traditional” sources but rather have incorporated into their treatment practices modern ingredients that are potentially toxic.
Conclusion: Interventions aimed at increasing the mental health literacy of traditional healers are essential. In addition, investigations
of the effectiveness of traditional healer treatment for psychiatric disorders should be conducted.