Getting to Grips with Religion And Mental Illness

Jozika Kauapirura

During a mental health summit in Windhoek last month, South African mental health advocate Dr Samke Ngobo shared her experience of bipolar disorder and religious beliefs. 

She recounted how, when she was 14 years old, she was admitted to hospital for a few weeks. While there, concerned people would come and pray for her.

During one such visit, I was told “say the name “Jesus’,” she said.

It was then that she realised “that this was beyond a prayer, it was an exorcism”. They felt they were trying to extract something because I was ‘demon possessed’, Ngobo poignantly recounted.

This incident underscores similar experiences other people may have encountered – individuals and groups who advocate that mental illnesses can simply be prayed away, and that God is the sole remedy.

However, this approach – as well intentioned as it may be in some cases – has resulted not only in misdirection but, in some cases, has proved harmful to those struggling with mental health issues.

Unfortunately, mental illnesses, especially severe cases, cannot be cured through prayer alone.


Depriving someone of professional help can lead to resentment towards religious institutions, or worse, it can result in other unintended consequences.

To make a child or adult believe that their mental health struggles stem from demonic possession, and to disregard the significance of qualified human intervention, can strip a person of hope in the efficiency of professional human assistance.

It alienates them, rendering their experiences as something beyond comprehension, and can amplify feelings of isolation and distress.

People should by all means pray for their loved ones, but must simultaneously seek professional help.

In some communities, there’s a persistent belief that mental illness is a ‘white man’s disease’, leading individuals to rely solely on religious interventions.

Particularly in rural areas, there’s a lack of awareness about mental illness. Misunderstanding mental health not only perpetuates stigmas but can also hinder access to vital treatment and support services.

When an individual from a disadvantaged background, or someone who lacks access to professional support, takes their own life, villagers or family members often claim it is witchcraft.

Children or adults may display symptoms, which are misunderstood as supernatural attacks, curses or being demon possessed, prompting their relatives to consult spiritual healers.

However, mistaking mental illnesses like schizophrenia for supernatural phenomena can be dangerous.

Schizophrenia, as defined by the Mayo Clinic, is a severe mental disorder characterised by abnormal interpretations of reality, including hallucinations, delusions and disordered thinking and behaviour.


There have also been reports of cases which show that when religious and traditional approaches fail, some people may resort to substance abuse as a coping mechanism.

Namibia has one of the highest alcohol consumption rates per capita in Africa, which makes the intersection of unresolved mental health issues and substance abuse all the more concerning.

Cycles of inadequate support potentially contribute to declining mental health, increased substance abuse and, in some cases, suicide.

This underscores the urgent need for comprehensive mental health interventions in Namibia.

Further, financial and mental vulnerability, coupled with inadequate information, can make individuals susceptible to exploitation and sexual abuse.

Unfortunately, because of a lack of adequate support on mental health issues, women are especially vulnerable to sexual assault with little chance of receiving justice.

When these women attempt to seek help, their claims may be dismissed with statements such as “don’t listen to her, she’s not in her right mind”, or “that one has always been crazy”.

Such utterances further exacerbate their plight. It is fundamentally unjust.


Similarly, the intentions of some well-meaning individuals and groups can inadvertently have traumatic repercussions for both children and adults and result in feelings of self-hatred and alienation.

It’s concerning that many people seemingly fail to shield their children from potential harm or exploitation by such individuals.

It is imperative to prioritise raising awareness and to educate community leaders and spiritual healers about mental health issues.

I firmly believe that ensuring our nation receives the necessary mental support and assistance will yield significant improvements across various sectors, from healthcare to the economy.

  • * Jozika Kauapirura is a journalism and media technology student at Nust, and is a passionate multifaceted activist in social- economic issues.

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