I am a Community Health Advocate and freelance citizen reporter for the media group ‘On Our Radar’, and I have a special interest in mental health. I have been a member of the Mental Health Coalition of Sierra Leone since 2013, and over the last year I have been involved with the RUHF research on mental health in Sierra Leone, as a field researcher. This has taken me to five districts around the country to talk to community members, religious leaders, community leaders, traditional healers and others about their understanding of psychological distress.
Through my involvement in this project, I have learned a great deal about psychological distress and case management in the local context, and how religion and traditional beliefs play a huge role, from the early stages of distress through to recovery. A group of traditional healers I interviewed strongly believed that mental health could not be manage or cured via western medicine, but only through traditional approaches.
The existing memorandum of understanding signed by the Government and the Traditional Healers Union instructs all traditional healers to refer people with mental health problems to a Government hospital for treatment and diagnosis, but this agreement has not, in fact, influenced the strongly held beliefs of those offering traditional healing. As one said, “I have referred so many patients who ended up coming back to me to seek help, because their family couldn’t see any improvement at the hospital”.
Many people in Sierra Leone associate psychological distress with curses or witchcraft, which results in them seeking help from traditional medicine practitioners or divine service from religious leaders (see my article on the relationship between witchcraft beliefs and mental health for more on this subject). People assess the results of these services by monitoring the ability of the affected person to resume basic personal and social activities - such as taking care of themselves and participating in public events - much as mental health professionals would do.
Through both this research and my membership of the Mental Health Coalition of Sierra Leone, I have developed a passion for this area of need. I have seen for myself how people affected by mental health problems are stigmatized, and receive little support from the public and government. My participation in the research project has inspired me to explore mental health in Western context and its relationship to traditional and religious perspective, particularly the important role that faith plays in mental health in Sierra Leone.
My hope for the future is to study further in the fields of global health or public health, so I can contribute to the strengthening of my country’s struggling mental health system.
Written by: Amjata Bayoh