Suntosh Pillay
Suntosh Pillay

Can a psychology of ubuntu heal our broken society?

The urgency of activism, although well-intentioned, can hide the ordinary, subtle, even banal nature of how societies become sick. The 16 days of activism, now quickly forgotten, reflected our uneasiness at how things are and had a desire to want to put things right. But change is a process, not an event.

Our response to violence must therefore acknowledge the insidiousness of how poverty, attitudes towards gender, mental health, our past, and the changing nature of families all intersect in a complex matrix that cannot be undone with overnight grand plans. We’re frustrated, but maybe we need to become inspired.

Women, children and sexual minorities are vulnerable to violent hate crimes. I work in public hospitals and we often assess and help these socially vulnerable groups who are — at the core — the victims of structural inequality left behind from apartheid. Those laws promoted homophobia and patriarchy.

Many traumatised, depressed and anxious people who become labelled as mentally unwell all endure stigma borne from a shared legacy of legislated discrimination. These challenges are rooted in our historical social pathologies. Fortunately, our democracy has created progressive laws and policies. But that’s not enough.

Despite research showing that state mental-health services tend to be under-funded, under-staffed, poorly conceptualised, and under-prioritised, along with some NGOs we bear the burden, perhaps the privilege, of being the last resort of hope for traumatised people who have nowhere to turn.

Fortunately, practicing psychology intersects with promoting human rights. The simple tenet underpinning our Constitution is, plainly put, about the right to be happy. The elusive pursuit of happiness is at the heart of mental-health promotion. As clinicians we’re satisfied with seeing our patients get relief from the symptoms that brought them into our offices, but we also hope for a true change in the social conditions that gave rise to them being vulnerable in the first place.

Our current ways of operating are too individualistic. Stuck in consulting rooms, organising a few outreach projects here and there, we are trapped in a mode of practice that is unnecessary, because communities are forgetting how to promote their own wellbeing.

For example, many psychiatry beds in hospitals are taken by people whose symptoms were triggered by high alcohol or drug abuse. Substance abuse leads to violence. But, reactive approaches shadow proactive ones, as one-on-one consultations fill our diaries. People may never become patients had there been effective psychosocial support in place. Similarly, the abnormally high suicide rate among LGBTI youth can be reduced if we focused on making young people comfortable with the varieties of sexualities that we are genetically predisposed towards. Instead, our reactive efforts wait for failed suicide attempts and we later try to treat the symptoms of a dysfunctional culture, ie alienation, rejection, aggression, ignorance.

Our discourse needs changing: Mental health is everybody’s business. It is not the domain of specialists.

Healthy communities should thus be able to help individual members before they even get to the point of needing specialist intervention like a psychiatrist or psychologist. This is where we fail ourselves. Are we doing enough to be everyday activists who create enabling, integrated social systems?

We really must deepen ubuntu, that spontaneous warmth we express for and through each other; build social capital; draw on our traditional and ancient healing wisdoms; know our neighbours well-enough to ask for help; not turn a blind eye or ear to abuse when we know it’s happening; not allow chronic alcoholism and drug abuse to be tolerated; affirm gay and lesbian identities as legitimate and okay; challenge gender norms; keep in contact with friends and family so our increasingly suburban lifestyle doesn’t isolate us; don’t get sucked into the narratives of how tough life is, how bad the world is, and how futile the pursuit of joy can be. We need to change the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we share with each other; we need to collect the wisdom of our foremothers who rose above adversity and made life happen, often happily and without complaint; and we need to nurture our souls, our common humanity, and our sense of love and kindness towards our fellow humans.

We need a psychology of the everyday, a psychology of being human within vibrant, exciting communities, whose building blocks are families that stay together, pray together, and play together. No amount of pills, or therapy, or hand-outs, or artificial support can replace the natural flow of being a person through other people.

Do you think a psychology and philosophy of ubuntu can help us get going?

An edited version of this article was published in the Sunday Times, January 27 2014.

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