Witch doctors tackle mental illness…. Really how? How can this work in other places and for other things? Please give your thoughts.
Uganda’s witch doctors tackle mental illness
A Canadian-funded program is teaching witch doctors and other traditional healers to act as a bridge between mentally ill patients and psychiatrists.
Traditional healers, are key health-care providers throughout the developing world.
By CHETHAN SATHYA
Special to the Toronto Star
Sat., April 26, 2014
In a region teeming with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, a team of Ugandan mental-heath experts is seeking help from an unlikely group: faith healers, also known as witch doctors.
Using a Canadian grant, they’ve trained nearly 500 traditional healers and village elders to recognize the signs of mental illness and refer patients to psychiatrists, instead of using traditional treatments that can be ineffective and even harmful.
The program is funded by a $1-million grant from Grand Challenges Canada, an organization that supports global health initiatives. It comes four years after Ugandan health regulators started cracking down on dangerous practices — such as child sacrifices and mutilations — by witch doctors.
Now, a growing number of witch doctors are learning to act as a bridge between mentally ill patients and psychiatrists, says Dr. Herbert Muyinda, a social anthropologist at Makerere University in Kampala and project leader for the Grand Challenges Canada initiative.
Traditional healers have already referred hundreds of patients to hospitals as a result of the program.
“I can now diagnose mental illness,” says Ajala Patrick, a traditional healer from Northern Uganda. Patrick referred nearly 100 patients to hospitals in the past year, rather than trying herbal or spiritual remedies.
Grand Challenges Canada hopes to use the lessons it learns in Uganda throughout the developing world, where traditional healers are key health-care players, says Ellen Morgan, who leads the global mental-health program at Grand Challenges Canada.
And their help is desperately needed in Uganda, where genocide and ongoing conflicts with Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army have resulted in the massacre of more than 65,000 people. Twenty per cent of the country’s 36 million people suffer from mental illnesses such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
But there are only 32 western-trained psychiatrists and one national mental hospital in the country, according to the World Health Organization. On the other hand, Uganda has at least one traditional healer for every 290 people, according to a World Bank study. So 80 per cent of Ugandans with mental illness go to local healers.
“When my patients have disorders of the mind, I often prescribe herbal potions composed of different roots,” says Patrick, the herbalist and self-described witch doctor.
When the potions don’t work, Patrick calls upon spirits to guide his treatments, which include touching a patient’s forehead to form a mind-to-mind connection while reading scriptures aimed at helping those who are possessed.
Most Ugandans believe evil spirits are the main cause of illness, Muyinda says. Because traditional healers are not trained to manage mental illness many Ugandans remain untreated, stigmatized and isolated, he adds.
When Muyinda’s team of psychiatrists started meeting traditional healers in 2012 to suggest collaboration, many healers “were resistant,” he recalls.
Once Muyinda invited village elders to the meetings, traditional healers started to listen. The elders’ support helped him persuade healers that he wanted to work with them, not replace them. “We don’t disprove their beliefs, but rather strive to educate,” Muyinda says.
As part of the program, psychiatrists now run community workshops where they teach traditional healers how to diagnose mental illness, provide psychological counselling and refer severe cases to hospital.
The partnership may also help Ugandans feel more comfortable visiting hospitals. “When a traditional healer says ‘go to hospital,’ people place a lot of confidence in that,” Muyinda says.
Patrick now recognizes that many of his patients, who often complained of being possessed or wanting to kill themselves, had a mental illness. “Now I can help my patients even more,” he adds.
Chethan Sathya is a fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and a surgical resident at the University of Toronto.