Some sections of Zimbabwe's society are still stuck in the belief that mental illness is the manifestation of evil spirits or the work of witchcraft. Those suffering from mental illness are subjected to stigma and are shunned, with mothers bearing the brunt of having children with a mental illness. Churches and media perpetuate this belief that realms beyond human life are at work in people who have a mental health condition.
"Conspicuous mental illness such as psychosis has always been seen as a threat to societies (people suffering from it being unpredictable, un-understandable, and dangerous to themselves and others), and lack of knowledge about the phenomena therefore increases mythological explanation models, unless maybe someone was able to be seen as part of a shamanic situation and using hallucinations/visions, etc as messages from higher beings. Lack of knowledge is the problem," explained Dr. Ruth Verhey, a clinical psychologist at Friendship Bench, an organisation that promotes mental well-being through community-based initiatives and also collects and analyses data.
"Wrong beliefs and lack of knowledge stop people from getting treatment by professionals or expose them to dangerous 'treatment' options such as exorcism or herbal concoctions. People have a right to receive evidence-based treatment; everything else is malpractice," Dr. Verhey pointed out regarding the threat of supernatural beliefs affecting patients in getting help.
One spiritual healer, Memory Kuzonyeiin Harare, believes that mental problems are likely linked to witchcraft. “Of course we are now in modern times and there have been breakthroughs in science; however, when someone has a mental illness, we cannot rule out sorcery and the use of charms. Just look at the number of people who seek spiritual help from us, usually coming from medical specialists. It's not like spiritual methods don't work.”
Catholic Priest Roland von Nidda pointed out how entrenched people are in the belief of mental illness as being bewitched. "It is obviously false to attribute every case of mental illness to being bewitched. To do so is not only factually wrong but morally wrong. It is to stigmatise a person as a witch or as one who has been bewitched. But we know from psychology and the placebo and nocebo effects that what a person believes can affect him/her both physically and mentally. Thus, if someone strongly believes s/he has been bewitched, then this can cause physical and mental illness," he said.
People with a mental condition are cut off from the community, as there is a lack of information on how they are to be cared for. Institutions that provide care for such conditions have stretched resources. It is particularly difficult for parents of children with mental conditions who are forced to either send them to special schools or are locked up at home.
"There is a general movement towards deinstitutionalisation. People suffering from a psychiatric disorder do not have to be locked away, and nothing should be done to them against their consent. This requires a paradigm shift in the treatment of such conditions, and people who suffer from common mental disorders should be supported more and seek help earlier, which means help and support systems have to be available and easily accessible," Dr. Verhey said about what needs to be done to improve the care of those with medical conditions.
Stigma is a major hurdle in dealing with mental health issues, as medical, results-based interventions are not as popular as going to a spirit medium. Another factor is affordability, as traditional methods cost a fraction of conventional medical interventions.