Witchcraft Or Simply Mental Illness?

By: Mamotladi Ivy Matloga

I recently watched a programme on television wherein a young lady was talking about how in her understanding, there is no such a thing as mental illness. According to the lady, mental illness was nothing more than plain witchcraft. “People waste a lot of money on expensive medication trying to cure mental illness, and they can never find cure in western medicine,” she said.

The young lady’s way of thinking may be surprising to many and even offensive to others, but her ideology is nothing new. I do not know how by some magic powers, anyone could have the ability to affect another person’s mind, so I will not dispute her ideas. But I also understand that where there is no clarity, where mystery exists, human beings will attempt to seek answers and a sense of reason. Unfortunately, in our communities, particularly in rural areas, there is very little comprehension of how a mental illness might occur.

One cannot claim to know for certain whether witchcraft or curses exist, or whether there is merit in the association of these mysterious phenomena with disorders such as Schizophrenia, Psychosis, Bipolar, and other varieties of mental illness. The fact of the matter is that, if consulted, most traditional doctors would likely point to witchcraft as the cause of mental illness and some might even share the name of the culprit or witch. Whether or not the accusation would be accurate, relationships would still be destroyed because it is usually the closest relatives or neighbours that would be pointed out as perpetrators.

In my novel, Madness in Duggart, the protagonist’s mother refuses to lend an ear to anyone who suggests that her son may have been bewitched. Even in her pain and confusion, she understands the suffering that would inevitably be inflicted upon those that might be (wrongfully) accused. They could be alienated at best, or have their homes set on fire by angry mobs, at worst. The repercussions of the finger-pointing and speculations were bound to be too devastating.

But what exactly is witchcraft? The Oxford dictionary describes witchcraft as ‘the use of magic, especially black magic; the use of spells.’ As far as its alleged links with mental disorders goes, witchcraft is seen as the casting out of spells onto a target, in order for them to lose a sense of reality and normality. This could be done out of jealousy, mainly. As I heard one Psychiatrist explaining this: you may find that an intelligent child suddenly performs badly in their exams because it so happened that when the question paper was presented to them, they started seeing nothing but darkness as their mind switched off in an apparent blackout. Some would call that witchcraft. The witches would not want to see this child, with a seemingly bright future, realise his or her highest potential. The psychiatrist might diagnose such an occurrence as symptoms of a panic or anxiety attack’. The downside of the witchcraft accusation is that treatment is seldom sought timeously, if at all, and it devastates both the affected family and the accused one. The way I see it, the missing link and the root cause of the accusations is poor awareness and lack of education. People just do not know better. And whether those that believe in the power of spells and the Psychiatrists would ever agree is not so much the point. What is crucial is that people need to be made aware and taught that it is not too much of a mystical phenomenon when someone loses their mind; that there are logical medical explanations, regardless of how limited they may be in uncovering the true causes of mental illnesses.

Madness in Duggart is available on Amazon

In South Africa, the book can be ordered online (for delivery within 48 hours) here.

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