Campus & Community

A short history: Psychiatry in modern Africa

2 min read

Psychiatrists working in Africa during the colonial period held to the belief that Africans did not suffer from depression. They based this idea on the assumption that Africans lacked the ability to be self-reflective or self-critical and therefore depression had no chance of gaining a foothold in their psyches.

Later research during the 1950s showed that this view was nonsense. Africans, along with people throughout the world, suffer from certain universal mental disorders. What differs is the nature of their symptoms, the way these disorders are expressed.

The plasticity of mental symptoms and their responsiveness to cultural factors is one of the themes that will be explored today (Dec. 14) in a one-day workshop on African psychiatry. Sponsored by the working group on Health, Healing and Ritual Practice in Africa (a part of the Africa Initiative), the workshop brings psychiatrists with an interest in Africa together with social scientists and humanists whose work looks at mental illness and healing from a variety of perspectives.

The workshop’s coordinator, Emmanuel Akyeampong, professor of history and of African and African American studies, has had a long-standing interest in issues of health and disease in Africa. As a historian, he finds mental illness a particularly interesting topic because of its intrinsic connection with culture.

“What I’ve found fascinating about mental illness is that it is always defined by culture, and therefore culture comes to shape the profession of psychiatry and to define what we mean by madness,” Akyeampong said.

The workshop’s first session explores this theme with presentations such as “Music and Healing in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church” by Kay Shelemay, the G. Gordon Watts Professor of Music and professor of African and African American studies; “Language and the Discourse of Madness in Kenya” by John Mugane, professor of the practice of African languages and cultures; and “Cannabis and Madness in Ghana” by Akyeampong.