UP EXPERT OPINION: Ubuntu as a solution to mental illness challenges

Posted on March 13, 2024

In the grand narrative of human history, the battle against mental disorders has seen notable progress. Yet, as we think back to the Middle Ages, with its pervasive ignorance and often barbaric treatment of those afflicted with mental disorders, it becomes clear that our contemporary world is still grappling with a crisis of mental health.

Today, amid the complexities and demands of modern existence, individuals worldwide face a myriad of challenges – from childhood traumas to poverty, social isolation, discrimination and stigma – all exacerbated by global pandemics, disasters and wars. These challenges manifest in various psychological conditions that profoundly impact how individuals think, feel, and behave.

Despite advances in understanding and treatment, many of these conditions persist undiagnosed, acting as significant barriers to emotional, psychological and social well-being. Although we have moved beyond the Middle Ages’ view of mental disorders as a divine punishment, the stigma and inequities in mental healthcare persist across the globe.

The World Health Organisation’s Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan 2013 – 2030 outlines global efforts, yet the statistics remain staggering. Around 450 million people struggle with mental disorders, with one in eight individuals living with a mental disorder. Suicide attempts are 20 times more frequent than fatalities. Despite the immense burden, mental health receives a disproportionately small allocation of healthcare budgets, with limited access to specialists, particularly in middle-income countries.

The ongoing global crisis around mental health issues presents an important opportunity to advocate for ubuntu as a solution. Ubuntu, deeply rooted in African culture and philosophy, holds profound wisdom that can offer an alternative approach.

As I champion ubuntu as a solution from Africa to the global mental health crisis, I’m reminded of a quote from American memoirist and poet Maya Angelou, who once said: “When you learn, teach; when you get, give.” Africa has long embraced ubuntu, a profound philosophical and ethical concept deeply ingrained in South African culture. Originating from African languages, ubuntu broadly translates to “humanity towards others” or “I am because we are”. It is high time we share this invaluable ethos with the world, offering it as an alternative solution to the challenges of mental illness.

With its roots firmly planted in African tradition, the ubuntu philosophy presents a holistic perspective on mental health. It underscores the interconnectedness of individuals, emphasising that personal well-being is intricately linked to the welfare of the community. By nurturing strong social bonds and fostering communal support, ubuntu creates an environment that is conducive to positive mental health outcomes. Unlike approaches that prioritise individualism, ubuntu places emphasis on relationships and communal harmony, thereby cultivating a supportive social fabric that contributes significantly to emotional well-being.

Unlike Western individualistic approaches, ubuntu prioritises relationships and communal harmony. It recognises that individual well-being is inseparable from community welfare, and emphasises the importance of strong social bonds and communal support in fostering positive mental health outcomes. In a world where personal achievements often overshadow collective well-being, ubuntu reminds us of the significance of harmonious relationships, mutual support and a shared sense of belonging.

Communities that are rooted in ubuntu principles foster a supportive social environment that promotes emotional well-being. They provide robust social support networks that give individuals a profound sense of belonging, and act as buffers against stress and isolation. Ubuntu-driven communities counteract the loneliness epidemic by encouraging regular social interactions and shared experiences that actively promote psychological well-being.

Moreover, ubuntu fosters a sense of collective efficacy, where community members believe in collaborative goal achievement. Shared cultural values create an environment that mitigates the impact of cultural stressors on mental health. In ubuntu-driven communities, individuals have opportunities to actively contribute, fostering a sense of purpose and accomplishment that positively impacts self-esteem and mental well-being.

Importantly, ubuntu can play a pivotal role in reducing the stigma associated with mental health issues within communities. Its core principles of interconnectedness, shared humanity and collective responsibility lay the foundation for understanding, empathy and acceptance. Ubuntu promotes open dialogue, normalising discussions about mental health and encouraging individuals to share their experiences openly. By emphasising shared humanity, ubuntu challenges the “us versus them” mentality often associated with mental health stigma, and fosters a culture of empathy and compassion.

In ubuntu-driven communities, mental health is not seen solely as an individual concern, but as a shared responsibility for the welfare of all members. By actively creating mentally healthy environments and challenging stigma, ubuntu empowers communities to support one another in times of need.

As Africa leads the way in championing ubuntu principles, it has the opportunity to offer invaluable lessons to the global community. By embracing ubuntu and its emphasis on interconnectedness, communal support and collective responsibility, we can pave the way for a more compassionate, understanding and mentally healthy world for all. 


- Author Prof Nontembeko Bila

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