Issue Highlight Vol 40 Issue 3: The Mental Health Treatment Gap Across Africa

In the coming weeks, we will be presenting special highlights of our latest installment of the journal, released September 2016 (accessible here.) This week, we explore Sara Cooper’s article “‘How I Floated on Gentle Webs of Being’: Psychiatrists’ Stories About the Mental Health Treatment Gap in Africa.” The full article is available here.


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As Cooper notes in the outset of her article, clinicians and global health workers have identified a “gap” in available mental health services in Africa, and developed programs targeted at the resolution of lacking mental health services across the continent. Despite widespread attempts to research and resolve this gap, however, there remains concern about the problems that arise when a global, top-down approach to mental health services is applied in African contexts. Responding to this concern, Cooper sought out views on the treatment gap at the local level, specifically amongst African psychiatrists. Cooper gathered and analyzed narratives from twenty-eight psychiatrists from South Africa, Uganda, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. She found that while a biomedical, rationalistic narrative about the gap was certainly present, another, more phenomenological understanding of the “gap” emerged from the narratives of three of her participants, which urged a more sensitive approach to the implementation of mental health services in Africa.

Cooper first found that some of the psychiatrists in her study repeatedly turned to a dominant (or master) biomedical narrative to explain why the mental health treatment gap existed in their respective countries. In other words, the psychiatrists relied on a rationalistic, deductive, and material explanation that accounted for the mental health treatment landscapes across Africa. For instance, many of the psychiatrists argued that the lack of physical resources– hospitals, beds, clinicians to staff treatment centers– led patients to seek out non-biomedical interventions like prayer-based or spiritual-based care. The participants agreed that if there were enough services available, patients would not turn to complementary or religious forms of treatment. In their perspective, alternative forms of care were a substitute for biomedicine, rather than a legitimate venue for patients to seek mental health assistance in the absence of (or even alongside) biomedical resources.

Indeed, the act of seeking out these alternative treatments was viewed by the psychiatrists as a rational response: one borne out of the creativity of patients who weighed available options and selected the most appropriate, present service (rather than a complex response to a pluralism of local medical systems.) Conversely, however, the psychiatrists also argued that patients underutilized health services and lacked “mental health literacy,” or the knowledge needed to preface the choice to seek out biomedical assistance. Through these examples, and others, Cooper observes that this sub-cohort of psychiatrists tended to return to a rationalistic understanding of medical treatment that may not always have been sensitive to other means of medical decision-making or to the scope of biomedical interventions.

Yet Cooper also discovered that there were notable fractures in the biomedical “master narrative,” wherein psychiatrists’ narratives reveal concerns about the role of biomedical mental health services in addressing treatment gaps. Three psychiatrists admitted that biomedicine might not necessarily address the full scope of a patient’s mental illness or health concerns in the broader context of their lives or personal needs. For example, these three participants noted that the psychiatrist might have to explain that available treatments could potentially fail to fully resolve a patient’s complaint, or that they might have to accept that a patient’s past traumas, or troubling social circumstances, were beyond that which the psychiatrist could ameliorate through medical means. Here, the treatment “gap” is conceptual: the ideological place where a patient’s hopes, experiences, and expectations about their care may not be perfectly matched to the psychiatrist’s available treatments and medical diagnoses.

In this sub-cohort, one psychiatrist remarked that the “paternalistic” method of biomedical treatment could be unproductive, as the clinician may not be able to fully mend the patient’s health due to the social, personal, and individual complexities of the patient case. Another psychiatrist recounted a patient’s case in detail, noting that while he believed this person suffered from delusions, it was his responsibility to help the patient by trying to understand his view of reality, suffering, and personal struggle. Yet another psychiatrist recounted equally challenging cases, where they recognized that patients often were not satisfied with simply a cleanly-defined diagnosis or treatment plan, but required a more robust means of reordering and improving their lives with the psychiatrist’s guidance.

Cooper states that “for these psychiatrists, in taking people’s experiences and meanings seriously, on their own terms, one comes to appreciate that their understandings and behaviours are deeply complex and varied, affected by all sorts of social, cultural and emotional realities and rationalities.” Though the master narrative of biomedical rationality remained prominent, these alternative narratives were sensitive to the lived experiences and individual realities of the patient. They also explored the treatment gap, but viewed the “gap” as the product of complex interactions between psychiatrists and their patients. For the latter three participants, the “gap” was caused not by a lack of resources or knowledge, but by the friction between practitioners’ and patients’ expectations about the treatment of mental illness, and a mismatch between practitioners’ medical skills and the self-professed needs and understandings of patients. “According to the three psychiatrists in this [part of the] study,” Cooper concludes, “increasing the availability of services necessitates first and foremost rethinking the nature of the kinds of services that are expanded, and the associated epistemologies upon which these are based.”

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