Explanatory models of mental disorders and treatment practices among traditional healers in Mpumulanga, South Africa

K. R. Sorsdahl, A. J. Flisher, Z. Wilson, D. J. Stein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

79 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)284-290
Number of pages7
JournalAfrican Journal of Psychiatry (South Africa)
Issue number4
StatePublished - Sep 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Explanatory models
  • Mental illness
  • South Africa
  • Traditional healers


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