Culture affects the way people conceptualize causes of severe mental disturbance which may lead to a variation in the preferred intervention methods. There is a seemingly dichotomous belief regarding what causes severe mental disturbance: people living in western countries tend to focus mainly on biological and psychosocial risk factors; whereas, in non-western countries the focus is mainly on supernatural and religious factors. These belief systems about causation potentially dictate the type of intervention preferred. Studying such belief systems in any society is expected to help in planning and implementation of appropriate mental health services.
A qualitative study was conducted among the Borana semi-nomadic population in southern Ethiopia to explore perceived causes of severe mental disturbance and preferred interventions. We selected, using purposive sampling, key informants from three villages and conducted a total of six focus group discussions: three for males and three for females.
The views expressed regarding the causes of mental disturbance were heterogeneous encompassing supernatural causes such as possession by evil spirits, curse, bewitchment, ‘exposure to wind’ and subsequent attack by evil spirit in postnatal women and biopsychosocial causes such as infections (malaria), loss, ‘thinking too much’, and alcohol and khat abuse. The preferred interventions for severe mental disturbance included mainly indigenous approaches, such as consulting Borana wise men or indigenous healers, prayer, holy water treatment and seeking modern mental health care as a last resort.
These findings will be of value for health care planners who wish to expand modern mental health care to this population, indicating the need to increase awareness about the causes of severe mental disturbance and their interventions and collaborate with influential people and indigenous healers to increase acceptability of modern mental health care. It also provides information for further research in the area of mental health in this semi-nomadic population.