In this paper I problematize knowledge on reducing the ‘gap’ in treatment produced by 14 national mental health policies in Africa. To contextualize this analysis, I begin with a historic-political account of the emergence of the notion of primary health care and its entanglement within decolonization forces of the 1960s. I unpack how and why this concept was subsequently atrophied, being stripped of its more revolutionary sentiments from the 1980s. Against this backdrop, I show how, although the 14 national mental health policies are saturated with the rhetoric of primary health care and associated concepts of community participation and ownership, in practice they tend to marginalize local meaning-systems and endorse a top-down framework heavily informed by colonial medicine. The policies thus end up reproducing many of the very Eurocentric assumptions that the original primary health care notion sought to transcend. More specifically, the paradigms of evidence-based research/practice and individualised human rights become the gatekeepers of knowledge. These two paradigms, which are deeply embedded within contemporary global mental health discourse, are legislating what are legitimate forms of knowing, and by extension, valid forms of care. I argue that a greater appreciation of the primary health care concept, in its earliest formulation, offers a potentially fruitful terrain of engagement for developing more contextually-embedded and epistemologically appropriate mental health policies in Africa. This in turn might help reduce the current ‘gap’ in mental health care treatment so many countries on the continent face.
Disability and the Global South (DGS), 2015, Vol. 2 No. 3