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Common understandings of women’s mental illness in Ghana

We hope you enjoy our short summary of a research paper published by Dr Angela Ofori-Atta and colleagues in 2010.  We hope you find it useful.

There is worldwide evidence that women have higher rates of depression and stress related illnesses than men. This is also the case in Ghana. Dr Ofori- Atta conducted research exploring the beliefs local people have about why this was the case.  She found out that the participants thought women suffered more from depression and anxiety related illnesses because:

a. They thought women are naturally weaker than men and were less capable of solving their own problems. They also thought it could be because women internalise all their problems and have emotional disturbances as a consequence of their monthly menstrual periods or menopause.

b. The participants thought that women who were involved in witchcraft could bring mental illness upon themselves or other people in the community and as most witches were thought to be women there is the higher likelihood of mental illness among the female gender.

c. Being a female could predispose a woman to domestic and sexual abuse. It could also mean that if she does not have a personal source of income then she is dependent on the same man who is abusing her for food, clothing and shelter and is trapped in the relationship.

A woman married to a polygamist or unfaithful husband is also thought to be at an increased risk of mental illness due to the insecurities this will cause.

We suggest it is therefore important that all mental health workers are aware of these factors which could trigger and maintain mental illness in women. It may be that we have to proactively screen for the factors suggested in (c) and perhaps reflect on our own beliefs about (a) and (b) which are not held worldwide. It is also worth thinking about why people in Ghana hold these beliefs.

It may be helpful to be aware that a woman who has been accused of been a witch will be filled with a sense of shame and would be less inclined to disclose this. Her family will also appear unsupportive for the same reasons.

This article was published in the International Review of Psychiatry in December 2010 and is free online via any search engine (i.e. Google). It can also be accessed by clicking on

The full article reference is; Ofori-Atta, A., et al (2010). Common understandings of women’s mental illness in Ghana: results from a qualitative study. International Review of Psychiatry, 22(6): 589–598