Bye bye Freud: another take on therapy

For many Dutch people a visit to a psychologist has become a normal way of dealing with stress, depression, fear or sadness. These one-on-one talks can help you discover the source and reason of your emotions, help you find new ways of dealing with them, or changes thoughts or behaviour for the better. The private character of this form of therapy is taken (by some) as a positive feature, it makes the client feel safe, protected and the centre of attention. Freud, the well-know psychiatrist from Austria, has been at the root of this form of individual, soul-searching therapy. And while his search into the depths of the individual human mind has been very fruitful in some cases, his approach is definitely not suitable for everyone, or everywhere!

When I ask Christine Among, founder of Mama Watoto, if they also have individual therapy sessions for the children in the new rehabilitation centre in Soroti, Uganda, she smiles and shakes her head. “No no no, of course not! We don’t do that kind of thing. We don’t pay someone to listen to our troubles. My neighbour or friend can do this for free!”. But what about the basic therapeutic counselling they offer at the centre? Christine explains to me how they offer “therapy”, and help the children heal, in ways that are more connected to Ugandan culture. Healing is not something you do by yourself, alone. Healing happens when you become part of a group, when you become part of a new family. This can be realised in many different ways, and these different forms of healing will be my focus for the upcoming months.

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photo: Dirk Naaijkens

My field of study is medical anthropology and sociology, and this background will be my starting point when I address the different forms of healing and therapy that take place at the rehabilitation centre in Soroti. Many people will now raise an eyebrow and wonder: what is anthropology? And more so, what is medical about that? Medical anthropology and sociology is the study of how illness and health are shaped, experienced, and understood in light of cultural, historical, political and global forces. It is not about saying one kind of therapy is better than another, but about understanding why and how these differences exist and affect people. 

This sounds complicated, but all of us know about cases in which time, culture or politics influenced the way we look at diseases. Think for instance how the legalisation of homosexuality in 1973 made sure that homosexuals would not be locked away in psychiatric hospitals in the Netherlands anymore. Or what about Lisa Cooper who, in her Ted Talk, explains the relation between racism, ethnicity and health disparities in the USA? Maybe you can think of an example from your own life, in which your cultural background, the year you live in, or the geographical region you reside in influences the way you see your body, health and illness? If you would get a seizure today, how would the people around you interpret this? As a problem of the brain? Or maybe as a sign of being possessed by the devil or an evil spirit? Or possibly as a way of communicating with God? In all these cases a medical anthropologist would be fascinated! As am I, while I start my discovery of different forms of healing and therapy in the centre in Soroti.

I would like to invite the reader to take a new look at health, wellbeing and therapy. We can learn that healing can be done as a family, as a community, together. By looking at the work of Mama Watoto we can learn more about others and ourselves.

For a closer look at the interaction of ethnicity and health, check out Lisa Coopers Ted Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CBNWaQM2JrE