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A Framework for Global Mental Health: Lessons Learned from African Philosophy and Dr. Seuss

Written By: Richelle Bird

As a child, I was fascinated by the book “Come Over to My House” by Theo LeSieg (better known to many as Dr. Seuss). In the book, the reader travels to different countries, and learns about different customs from children around the world. The moral of the story is that despite differences in the way the children speak, eat, live, and play, they are all still children, and are therefore more alike than they are different. I was recently reminded of this book (or what I like to consider my first delve into the area of cross cultural psychology) when I learned about the concept of ubuntu. Ubuntu is a Nguni term that originated in South Africa, but is found across several different languages throughout the continent (van Dyk &Matoane, 2010). While there is no clear agreement on the meaning of the term, it is generally believed to translate to “personhood”. However, it is often used to refer to a philosophy, and a way of life, as opposed to simply a single terminology (Bonn, 2007; van Dyk &Matoane, 2010). The South African saying, ‘unumtu ngumumntu ngbantu’, or ‘a person depends on others to be a person’, perhaps best explains the premise of this construct. Ubuntu has been referred to as “African humanism”, a “social love story” (Artistide, 2005), and is described as “the essence of being human” (Saule, 1998). The principles of ubuntu are not innately acquired, but rather are passed down through teachings, fables and the socialization of children, a process shared by the entire community (Bonn, 2007). The critical importance of relationships is also reflected upon in this construct, with the philosophy asserting that a person is a person through others (Mji et al., 2011), and that society, rather than a transcendent being, gives humans their humanity.

The philosophy of ubuntu is also beneficial as a therapeutic orientation, providing a way in which to help people find meaning, frame relationships, and develop respect for others (Teffo, 1998). I believe the concept of ubuntu also provides an effective lens from which to frame work in the area of global mental health. Ubuntu highlights the need to reframe and refocus research processes and goals to looking at “us” as opposed to looking at “them” (Mji, Gcaza, Swartz, MacLachlan &Hutton, 2011). For me, this not only means a difference in how I look at the work I am engaged in, but also shifts the way I feel about it. Suddenly my investment in the tasks are deepened, and my interest in the results of the project becomes more about the people involved than simply generating significant findings. Saule (1998) states: “…any humanity is bound with your own”, which I think encapsulates a simple, yet critical orientation to take when working in the area of global mental health.

“There are so many houses you’ll meet on your way, and wherever you go you will hear someone say…Come over to my house, come over and play”. - Theo LeSieg (Dr. Seuss)

Perhaps my recent affinity to this term can be attributed to how well it encapsulates my experience of the Global MINDS Program. What became particularly salient for me during my stay in Kenya was how quickly we as humans can adapt to a new environment. The language, customs, and norms may change as we cross borders, but I learned that there is significant fluidity in culture. On numerous occasions over the past three months, I would find myself smiling and laughing with a group, as jokes and stories were exchanged in Swahili. While I would love to be able to attribute this to my proficiency at learning languages (unfortunately not the case), I know it had nothing to do with language and everything to do with connection. Emotions know no cultural bounds. While culture may influence and dictate how emotions are expressed, it doesn’t define the essence of experiencing these emotions. It is this universal and innate shared experience that connects us humans. It’s what allows us to travel and explore, while still feeling a sense of belonging, and a sense of being at home. To me, this is ubuntu.

Kidd and colleagues (2016) emphasize the need to have a complete understanding and appreciation for the nature of the challenge and the experience of those impacted when pursuing socially innovative mental health initiatives in low-middle income countries. Similarly, MacLachlan (2014) brings to light the importance of using a global psychological perspective that is informed not only by evidence based practices, but also by the “fascinating complexities of the lives that people actually live”. I believe that a fervent curiosity for exploring these “complexities” combined with a profound appreciation for the power of connection is vital for anyone aiming to work in the area of global mental health. And it is to Theo LeSieg that I owe thanks for igniting my curiosity about the lives of others, so many years ago.


Aristide, J.-B.  (2005) The psychology of Ubuntu.  Paper presented at Meeting of the Centre for African Renaissance, University of South Africa, Pretoria, 26 January.

Kidd, S., Cole, D. C., Raja, S., McKenzie, K., Madan, A., Rallabandi, S., ... & Wiljer, D. (2016). Social entrepreneurship and mental health in low-and middle-income countries. CAMH, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

LeSieg, T. (1966). Come over to my house. Random House Publisher.

MacLachlan, M. (2014). Macropsychology, policy, and global health. American Psychologist, 69(8), 851.

Mji, G., Gcaza, S., Swartz, L., MacLachlan, M., & Hutton, B. (2011). An African way of networking around disability. Disability & Society, 26, 365–368.

Saule, N. (1998) Images of Ubuntu in the essays of S. E. Q. Mqhayi in Umteleli Wabantu (1912– 1939), South African Journal of African Languages, 18(1), 10–18.

Teffo, J. (1998). Botho/Ubuntu as a way forward for contemporary South Africa. Word and Action, 365, 3–5.

van Dyk, G. A., & Matoane, M. (2010). Ubuntu-oriented therapy: Prospects for counseling families affected with HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. Journal of Psychology in Africa20(2), 327-334.


About Richelle Bird:

Richelle Bird is a second year doctoral student in the School and Child Applied Psychology program at Western University. Richelle has a particular interest in researching and working with vulnerable and marginalized populations including individuals with serious mental illness, at-risk youth, and First Nations, Metis, and Inuit (FNMI) communities. During the Summer Institute of the Global MINDS Fellowship Program, Richelle and her team members worked on developing an “advocacy incubator” as a way to raise awareness, promote social inclusivity and dispel myths and stigma about mental illness in the Machakos community. Richelle will work with her team, and collaborate with local Kenyan community partner CREATE Kenya, over the next year to implement and evaluate this initiative.

About the GMFP SnapShot Blog:

Through the SnapShot Blog, the Global MINDS Fellowship Program Fellows will share real-time, insightful and authentic reflections regarding their experiences with the program and their progress of implementing and evaluation their solutions. Each month, our Kenyan and Canadian Fellows will both contribute to the blog. You can learn more about the GMFP here