Nabeelah Bemath

Mental health professionals were spoilt for choice with various conferences in the discipline being held during the last three months. I had the opportunity to attend two of the conferences on offer: The Pan-African Psychology Congress (PAPU 2017) that took place from the 18th – 21st September in Durban, South Africa; and the World Congress of Mental Health (WCMH) that took place from the 1st – 5th November in Delhi, India.

The overarching theme of the PAPU 2017 was ‘Psychology for Society’, where the focus was on how the discipline can be developed to improve the wellbeing of others and create a more just world. This theme was showcased through the Congress’s extensive scientific programme which featured several keynote addresses, symposia, and presentations by experts and emerging mental health professionals. The overarching theme of Psychology for Society was covered by several subthemes in the programme, some of which were: indigenous, public health, community, clinical, neuropsychology, critical/social, children/developmental, industrial/organisational, regulation of psychology, wellness/intervention. Across these subthemes, the emphasis placed on transdisciplinary, indigenisation and decolonisation. This embodied the overall theme of the Congress.

The overarching theme of the World Federation of Mental Health’s 21st Biennial WCMH was ‘Partnerships for Mental Health’. The aim was to encourage knowledge integration in order to move beyond disciplinary boundaries and develop partnerships to better address mental health issues in the current global context. The four overarching thematic areas of focus were Mental Health for the Youth of 21st Century, Traditional Approaches to Mental Health Care, Holistic Mental Health and Well-being, and a Global Dialogue for Mental Health. Within the various workshops, expert keynote addresses, symposia, panel discussions, oral and poster papers of the scientific programme, these overarching themes were displayed through numerous subthemes such as mental health across the lifespan, neuro-science & psychiatry, public mental health and primary mental health care, disability and social security and holistic mental health and wellbeing.

Despite the differences in the overarching scope and themes of these two conferences as can be seen above, it was interesting to note the overlap in some of the content and key messages of PAPU 2017 and the WCMH. Both conferences highlighted the struggles facing mental health and the profession in the Global South. Challenges facing the field of mental health in Africa discussed during PAPU 2017 were reflected in many of the challenges in other regions of the Global South (India in particular) that were discussed by presenters during the WCMH. This provided a valuable opportunity to learn of, and compare, how similar challenges faced in Africa have been managed in other regions in the Global South. Both conferences also encapsulated the need for a multi- and/or trans-disciplinary approach to mental health. These approaches were argued to be necessary to better understand and intervene in mental health-related matters. Similarly, the importance of taking context into account in understanding and treating mental health seemed to run though all the subthemes in both conferences. The importance of taking context into account was particularly emphasised though several speakers and presenters highlighting the need to incorporate indigenous knowledge systems and ways of being when understanding and treating mental health. This was reflected in the emphasis that both conferences placed on whether and/or how traditional methods of healing should be incorporated into the mainstream mental health sphere. For instance, T. Sodi, a distinguished invited speaker for PAPU 2017, presented on whether it is desirable and possible for Western trained mental health practitioners and traditional healers to collaborate in the treatment of mental health. Similarly, P. Kathuria and K. Singh Saini presented a symposium at the WCMH on whether spiritual healers can be integrated into mental health care teams in the Indian context.

Having attended both PAPU 2017 and the WCMH, it thus became evident that there are shared global challenges that face the understanding and treatment of mental health. Furthermore, these conferences highlighted the need for partnerships for mental health to be developed across disciplines and countries, while considering indigenous knowledge systems and ways of being. In this way, a process of mutual learning and development can occur so as to enable researchers and practitioners to develop psychology’s potential to drive human development in South Africa, other areas in the Global South and the rest of the World. By building partnerships for mental health, the knowledge and expertise obtained though these partnerships may then better equip researchers and practitioners to develop a ‘psychology for society’.

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