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Mental Health Problems Common To African Immigrants & Refugees in Minnesota

Mental Health Problems Common

 To African Immigrants & Refugees in Minnesota 

By:  Richard Oni, PhD.  



Throughout the ages, the majority of African people sought and received mental health care from traditional therapists. During colonial times, several small health care facilities opened up, and the major hospitals took charge of mental health care.
Mental trouble “in the native” was usually explained as demons or other religious delirium of a xenophobic nature, or “furious madness”…. an expression of diencephalatic predominance in the functioning of the brain in the African.
The “notion of illness” must be undertaken within the large sense of the culture that gives birth to different interpretations of reality. Representations of illness, particularly the mentally ill, vary from culture to culture. Mental illness cannot be cured if one does not take into consideration its wider cultural meaning.

In Africa and since the beginning of time, causality lies embedded within its cultural context. Collomb rightly affirmed, “Mental illness is a disruption of the established order, a modification of relationships between individuals and spirits. Mental illness is not only a problem of an individual or the individual’s family, but is also a threat to the cohesion and relations within the entire group”.

When mental illness is noted, the first thing the family usually does is hide the problem because mental illness is considered by many to be a shameful illness. When the trouble becomes intolerable, the family might secretly visit a healer. When the problems continue, the family might then go to the hospital. The treatment, and whether it is continued or not, is more often than not influenced by economic problems.


Sources of Stress: In Immigrant and Refugee Families
This list is not exhaustive

  • – Social adjustment
  • – Cultural issues/adjustment
  • – Religious differences
  • – Stigma in entering the mental health system
  • – Misdiagnosis of immigrants by mental health professionals
  • – Loss of material possessions
  • – Separation from family members/friends
  • – Loss of identity
  • – Language issues
  • – Physical health/treatment

Recommended Approaches

  • – Basic Education on cultural sensitivity
  • – Educate the mental health professionals in methods of understanding and addressing the unique needs of immigrants
  • – Service Providers need to develop partnerships between immigrant and refugee clients
  • – Service providers need to understand the help seeking practices of African immigrants and refugees and the process through which a victim’s trauma incubates or is internalized.
  • – Service providers need to understand the psychosocial forces: shame, humiliation, stigma, hurt, defenselessness that tend to underpin this response, causing the immigrants and refugees to resist intervention, often bearing their suffering in secret.


The Problem of Cultural Distortion
The question we are going to answering is whether cultural factors interfere with recognition of psychiatric disorders among the African s in Diaspora, and if so, in what particulars and to what degree?

First, keep in mind that the discipline of psychiatry has its base in the cultural system that covers Europe and America. All the technical definitions and psychiatric ways of looking at things have their meaning in this context. Whenever we speak of “psychiatry” and “clinic”, we are referring to a portion of this Euro-American culture system. More particularly, when we speak of various psychiatric disorders or symptoms, we are referring to phenomena defined in some manner as abnormal according to this system. For example….
Were = general term for all forms of insanity.

Example: talking to oneself or asking oneself questions and then answering them, hearing voices and seeing people not seen by others, inappropriate laughing, going about picking twigs on the streets with no useful purpose in mind, sudden attack on people, refusing food because of belief it is poisoned, etc.

Abisiwin, English = going crazy while giving birth but not to such a label as “postpartum psychosis”
For these reasons, serious problems of definitions and of recognition arise when one attempts to identify “disorders” in another culture.