Healthy minds make wealthy society

Thabo Mbeki in his recent speech at the Sunday Times Top 100 Business leaders awards, stated that South Africa had always been viewed as an optimistic nation.

But since the growing political demise this optimism has declined dramatically to a point of despair.

Mr Mbeki predicts, as others have, that if nothing is done and we continue to be complacent and not act urgently, we could reach the total collapse of our society and the rule of law. This should be very worrying not just for those in positions of power but for all of us.

He strongly suggests that all South Africans should support the National Conversation Initiative “to engage one another in an open, inclusive and comprehensive process out of which should emerge a national consensus about what we should do together to address all the challenges our country faces.”

Many people may wonder with the desperate psychosocial crisis we are faced with in South Africa, where are the psychologists and other mental health professionals in these desperate times and if they can help.

My experience at a recent psychoanalytic conference proved there are plenty attempts by mental health professionals of all races who have volunteered their help.

They usually do their work quietly, in often disruptive, chaotic and under-resourced state institutions and communities. I believe that if their work is supported and made available on a nation-wide scale, this could have profound healing and cathartic long-term benefits for our wounded communities, healing both past and present trauma.

For this to be realised, these psychologically-based interventions will need much more support from private and public partnerships if significant and sustainable psychosocial shifts are to take place.

In October, I attended and participated in a national psychoanalytic conference held in Cape Town to examine, think about and collaborate on mental healthcare matters in South Africa.

The conference was organised by the South African Psychoanalytic Confederation (SAPC) and called “Couch and Country”. The pertinence of this title cannot be underestimated and was indicative of mental health practitioners that more and more were thinking about the interwoven economic, structural, social and psychological consequences of our traumatic and oppressive political history in South Africa, as well as the prevalence of mental illnesses including depression, anxiety, violence and substance abuse which were increasing. These shocking facts as well as the poor state of mental health services in South Africa has had negative effects on all individuals including the vulnerable, such as children and the elderly.

The SAPC executive committee expressed an urgent call for mental health interventions that respond meaningfully and sustainably to these current conditions as well as to prevent further deterioration of our nation’s mental health and resources.

There have been significant attempts to make psychoanalysis more relevant to communities in South Africa.

Traditionally, psychoanalysis is associated with individual therapy in a consulting room but for many years psychoanalytic clientele have diversified beyond the individual to couples, groups and communities. Its settings have increasingly moved out of the consulting room into various community settings including schools, universities, youth centres, community workers in community spaces, shipping containers and even a bus which transports mental health workers to a township where community members can attend psychotherapy interventions. The latter being the Ububele Ubuntu bus which is a mobile psychology “clinic” that goes to a community in Alexandra township in Johannesburg to offer psychological interventions, including play therapy for children.

I was astonished and deeply moved by the myriad presentations of various psychological interventions and research done in communities with often very little resources and funding. Over and over their work showed a positive impact on community members who received mental health support and therapy as well as positive ripple effects on their families.

An intervention on the Cape Flats included the collaboration of the South African Association of Jungian Analysts (SAAJA) and a non-profit organisation called Community Action towards a Safer Environment (CASE) worked together to introduce Expressive Sandwork in Hanover Park. Volunteers to facilitate this form of play therapy for children were mostly drawn from the Hanover Park community and were trained by a specialist in the field of Expressive Sandwork therapy.

This intervention was based on Jung’s idea of the self-actualising capacity of the psyche, important elements of sandplay therapy, as well as on Freud’s idea of Free Clinics. This is a non-verbal group process, where each child pairs up with a trained adult volunteer, and spends an hour working in their own sand tray, using miniature figures to create a story which allows a profound expression of emotions and experiences of a traumatic nature. Many of these cases showed remarkable results in its ability to manifest powerful imagery which emerges from the psyche and allows suppressed emotions to be processed, leaving the child healed, more open and free to be a child again.

If we want to see the reduction of violence and abuse in our society, and live in a more peaceful and humane society we need to prioritise mental health again and not view it as a luxury or add-on to human development and prospering.

Jobs, money and housing alone will not make changes in people’s mindsets. According to psychoanalytic thinking, 85% of our choices, actions and motivations are influenced by unconscious forces.

The safety of all of us is threatened when large parts of our society are neglected, angry, desperate and hopeless. If you would like more information, email

I want to end with a quote from our past Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, on what ethical leadership is, and she says it is “influencing yourself and others in a productive way by doing the right things the right way.”

Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist in private practice. While she cannot enter into correspondence with individual readers, she will try to answer as many queries as possible through this column or refer you to organisations that can assist. You can write to her at

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