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Mental Illness Myths in Zimbabwe


A 2007 article indicates that religious and cultural beliefs, along with a lack of knowledge about mental illnesses, have resulted in the “uninformed ridicule,” maltreatment and abuse of mentally-ill members of Zimbabwean society who, culturally, are viewed as “social outcasts.” The article points out how “mental health problems may be attributed to witchcraft” and that some people with mental disorders are resorting to traditional treatment methods which may be unsuitable for their condition. Accessibility to mental healthcare in developing countries such as Zimbabwe is already a general concern, but rural communities are especially underserved. As this article points out for Zimbabwe, access to mental health facilities is generally centralised and not easily accessible to the majority of the people, especially those residing in rural areas where cases are rife.

Indeed, mental illness and mental health is a phenomenon that is still misunderstood by many across the globe. Yet in Africa it's most potently understood as a foreign idea even though it affects everyone regardless of who they are. A lot of ideologies, beliefs, values, as well as religious and economic statuses contribute to myths surrounding mental health which is contributing to the stigma and discrimination of mental illness.

Examples of Myths, Their Origins, and Their Impacts

Name calling is just one of many examples that demonstrate how social norms perpetuate negativity towards those with mental illness. Persons suffering from mental illnesses, mainly psychotic disorders, are labelled as Mupengo , ku zungaira , hadzitori mushe, zuze, dzakadambunga, down syndrome, zimcare, among others . All native names pose a lot of negativity as they seem to describe persons with mental illness as low life persons. Other names, such as down syndrome, demonstrate stigma and ignorance about not just mental illness but other disorders as well. These name calling attempts show how persons with mental illness are classified as "less than."

African values and beliefs also play a crucial role in stigmatizing mental illness. A lot of people believe that if someone has a mental illness, it is because of witchcraft. For example, when one is very intelligent and about to go to university and suddenly develops any mental disorders, especially psychosis, it's believed to be because of witchcraft from their relatives who didn't want them to progress to tertiary institutions. One’s belief that there is black magic or witchcraft can lead to corrupted thoughts, clouding their minds into think that everything is associated with such magic. Symptoms of mental disorders is quickly associated with evil. For instance bipolar disorder and other conditions associated with severe mood swings and behavioural changes are assumed to be evil overriding that person's body, and that they will be fine only if they are cleansed or prayed for by a sangoma, or spiritual healer.

Other African myths contribute to the stigma facing those with mental illness. Such myths are derived from the African culture and religious traditions, mainly apostolic religions. Some apostolic religions believe that a sin can cause mental illness and physical impairment, mainly cerebral palsy. For instance, illegitimate relationships or outside marriages are believed to often result in giving birth to a child with mental illness or physical impairment, especially when the sexual relationship was between relatives. Socially constructed ideologies also play a role in the misunderstanding of mental illness.

Relatedly, it is believed that African herbalists, traditional healers, and some apostolic leaders have the power to cause mental illness in someone if they committed a wrong deed on someone else. One such example involves a student who stole a cow and then started acting like a cow from 2015 up to now. He acts like a cow, eats grass, sounds like a cow, and sleeps outside. Another similar incident was recorded in Mutare town, where a person stole someone’s phone and reported himself on the local radio station Diamond FM, asking for the owner of the phone because the phone was talking to him, and he could hear the phone asking him to return it back to the owner and he could not stop scathing his hands. All the delusions and hallucinating were seen as a result of stealing someone else's phone.

It also believed that mental illness can be caused by someone who uses that illness as an excuse to make money "juju", a form of magical energy. It is believed that the more someone walks or runs, the more they get money. There is a local young men who patrols the Sakubva bus terminus who is alleged to be in that condition. Indeed, a well-known incident in town is that of a young man who would run all day in town singing everyday without rest. What he sang was meaningless and his stories did not make any sense. It was believed that his brother was using him to make money, so the more he ran, the more he would generate good juju to make money. At the end of the day, his brother comes and picks him up while driving a huge, expensive car, and in the morning the brother send his workers to drop him off again. Because the brother did not seek treatment for this condition, many people believe that the brother was benefiting from the condition monetarily.

Other myths contribute to the stigmatization of mental illness as well. A lot of people believe that those with mental illness are violent and unpredictable. This has led many to deny any association with mental health concerns, as most people claim that they are not violent so they don't have a mental disorder. Another common myth is that young people just go through ups and downs as part of puberty - that it's nothing. Mental illness in youths is perceived as a phase which will end. This myth is commonly found everywhere, regardless of if it's a rural or urban area. Therefore, many people overlook mental illness as a phase that will pass despite it affecting many youths.

The most deeply discussed myth, though, is probably the idea that mental health treatment is for the rich only, so mental illness is just for the rich too. Commonly said as, "Africans don’t do therapy", this myth raises a lot of questions: do poor people consider mental health treatment as something only for the rich because they don't develop mental disorders, or because mental health treatment is too expensive? The high prices for therapy have sidelined the poor into regarding mental illness as treatment as something for the rich only. This article seeks to oppose that common myth - the idea that the rich don't have risk factors of mental disorders, they don't get depressed since they already have everything and they don't have any issues, they just seek therapy for leisure because they don't have anything else to do, and group therapy is the rich's rich social club. These are misguided and false myths, since mental illness can affect anyone anywhere, regardless of socioeconomic status. Exposure to potentially triggering factors can differ depending on one's status in life, but that doesn't make anyone immune to mental illness as a whole. Economic status has for far too long misguided people on their judgements of mental illness.

At the end of the day, though, it's hard to seek care even if you are aware of and have debunked these myths. Generally, as experts note, there is very little psychiatric care available. People's beliefs and attitudes toward mental illnesses compound this. Because of the centralised system that is more inclined to big hospitals and institutions throughout Zimbabwe such as Ngomahuru in Masvingo, Ingutsheni in Bulawayo, and Annex in Harare, many people perceive mental health institutions as the product of white European culture or the middle class rather than something that is serving the general population of Zimbabwe. This has resulted in some of these noble centres acquiring bad institutional reputations because of lack of knowledge by the majority of the population. Some of these centres and their patients are subject to uninformed ridicule by members of the society who do not know that mental health illnesses are just as good or bad as any other illness. Because of lack of knowledge about mental illnesses and cultural beliefs, many people seek help from institutions that offer professional advice and therapeutic and medical treatment only as a last resort. It is unfortunate that many perceptions about mental illnesses are based on cultural and religious beliefs that can lead to dire consequences on people's health. Religious perceptions, for instance, may cause people to view mental illnesses as matters of spiritual concern rather than genuine illnesses that can be treated using modern socio-psychological and scientific methods. Cultural beliefs can be equally damaging. For instance, mental health problems may be attributed to witchcraft or ngozi. In such instances, both family members and communities would not seek modern remedies. While there is plenty of merit to be found in traditional healing methods and community support, more often than not they are not enough by themselves, and can even exacerbate the situation if misinformed myths about mental illness are strongly believed.


Though we are in the 21st century, a lot of myths still surround mental illness and mental health. Some myth are driven by traditional beliefs, values, religion, and culture, while others are propelled by economic issues. There is a lot of awareness education required to make everyone understand how serious mental illness is. With more than 450 million people across the globe suffering from it, it’s not business as usual - we need to be proactive and take strategic action. As most people are not seeking treatment for mental illness due to misconceptions caused the aforementioned myths, the number of people with mental illness will continue to rise without being acknowledged because very few understand mental health in general. Given how much culture, religion, and traditional beliefs can be difficult to integrate with contemporary scientific discoveries, there is a need to better inform the populace on these issues in order to override misconceptions surrounding mental illness.

Actionable Points

  1. Decentralisation of mental health facilities and allowing for smaller health institutions to run health initiatives

  2. Massive awareness campaigns on mental health issues for all citizens

  3. Deliberate outreach to areas particularly affected by mental health concerns, such as rural communities


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