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Traditional Healers in the Treatment of Common Mental Disorders in South Africa

Sorsdahl, Katherine MSc*; Stein, Dan J. MD, PhD*; Grimsrud, Anna MPH; Seedat, Soraya FCPsych (SA), PhD; Flisher, Alan J. PhD, FCPsych; Williams, David R. PhD, MPH; Myer, Landon MBChB, PhD

The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease: June 2009 - Volume 197 - Issue 6 - p 434-441
doi: 10.1097/NMD.0b013e3181a61dbc
Original Article

Abstract: There are few population-level insights into the use of traditional healers and other forms of alternative care for the treatment of common mental disorders in sub-Saharan Africa. We examined the extent to which alternative practitioners are consulted, and predictors of traditional healer visits. A national survey was conducted with 3651 adult South Africans between 2002 and 2004, using the World Health Organization Composite International Diagnostic Interview (CIDI) to generate DSM-IV diagnoses for common mood, anxiety, and substance use disorders. A minority of participants with a lifetime DSM-IV diagnosis obtained treatment from Western (29%) or alternative (20%) practitioners. Traditional healers were consulted by 9% of the respondents and 11% consulted a religious or spiritual advisor. Use of traditional healers in the full sample was predicted by older age, black race, unemployment, lower education, and having an anxiety or a substance use disorder. Alternative practitioners, including traditional healers and religious advisors, appear to play a notable role in the delivery of mental health care in South Africa.

*Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health; and †School of Public Health & Family Medicine, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa; ‡Department of Psychiatry, University of Stellenbosch, Stellenbosch, South Africa; §Research Centre for Health Promotion, University of Bergen, Norway; and ∥School of Public Health, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Supported by the United States National Institute of Mental Health (R01MH070884), the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Pfizer Foundation, the US Public Health Service (R13-MH066849, R01-MH069864, and R01-DA016558), the Fogarty International Center (FIRCA R01-TW006481), the Pan American Health Organization, Eli Lilly and Company, Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical, Inc., GlaxoSmithKline, and Bristol-Myers Squibb. The South Africa Stress and Health study was funded by grant R01-MH059575 from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Drug Abuse with supplemental funding from the South African Department of Health and the University of Michigan.

Send reprint requests to Katherine Sorsdahl, MSc, Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health, University of Cape Town, J-Block Groote Schuur Hospital, Observatory, Cape Town, South Africa. E-mail:

© 2009 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.