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

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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.

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