Black Psychology and African Spirituality: The Origin of Therapeutic Practice

Dr Y. Ade-Serrano and Dr L. Gordon, the co-leads for Culture & Difference within and across Ethnic Minorities, report from a one-day conference organised under the umbrella of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Counselling Psychology.

This event showcased the appreciation of, and the interplay between, Black Psychology and African Spirituality and its relevance across psychology and mental health. We challenged the perspectives of post-colonialism, contesting the various lenses narrating history and the impact on diverse communities. Presentations came from prominent speakers, as well as experts by experience sharing knowledge and best practice.  

Fixing the village

If it takes a village to raise a child then what do we do when the village has been pillaged, plundered and left to decay? If it takes a village what do we do when the villagers are ill, depressed, anxious, tired and operating a sub-optimal level?  

Dr Michele Perry-Springer had a call to the profound collective responsibility in healing our world. As psychologists, how do we begin to contemplate this task, knowing we are active partakers of the pain within the village? At first engagement with the questions, there is a defensiveness … surely we have not let this happen? Our silence and in-action contributes to the abandonment experiences of the village. 

Dr Perry-Springer drew attention to how the events of 2020, Covid-19 and full-frontal anti-black racism, have brought into sharp focus the disparities faced by people of African heritage in all spheres of society, this news while not new to those with the lived experience, has been somewhat of an awakening to White Britons. While African-Heritage communities are suffering the trauma of yet another example of racialised terrorism and are disproportionately burying their loved ones due to the pandemic, the response from the white establishment (not just White people) has been somewhat typical (albeit larger) – outrage, followed by frantic antics generated by guilt sprinkled with ‘heartfelt’ platitudes and some noticeable eye-rolls or complete denial and gaslighting. In other words, re-traumatisation. 

‘The restoration of our African Self is the way forward,’ argued Dr Perry-Springer, because it offers a roadmap to the well-being of African-Heritage people. ‘In order to restore we have to remember… our ancient forbearers knew that we would one day need these tools to heal and if we listen carefully, we will hear the drum…’

We were moved by the power of the music played. Dr Perry-Springer spoke powerfully about culture and how it embodies us. Although we see it in terms of music, dance and songs we sing, music is not just about entertainment – it is a deeper way of thinking, ‘a conspiracy’. Music speaks to the way in which people organise their thinking and see the world.

Listening with both ears 

Willelmina Joseph-Loewenthal provided an enthralling insight about a Black woman who began using secondary mental health services in 2001. The journey of her experiences of psychological therapies began with a burning question – ‘Why me?’ Or ‘What have I done to deserve this? Her presentation is based predominantly on her lived experience as a user of secondary mental health services in the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea; her membership of the Oremi Centre and her observations as a Peer Recovery Trainer at the Central and North West London NHS Trust Recovery & Wellbeing College.

It was refreshing to have a non-academic reflection of this human experience. Willelmina invited us in her experience to recognise how relevant the culture of the therapist is. She elaborated on the burden the client may carry when they have to explain culture, often when the therapist may have no idea of its meaning and relevance and the client is left feeling judged. She spoke eloquently about the importance of finding what is valued in the client’s culture rather than allowing it to appear as though culture is a negative. There was healing for her in making a shrine to her ancestors and acknowledging her connection with them. This needs understanding within the context of her experiencing.

The final part of Willelmina’s presentation looked at how she used the learning from her therapy, and how this has led her on another quest. ‘This time one of learning, of immersing myself in the historical, cultural and spiritual roots of my people and how this has changed me.’   

‘Sahku’: Illuminating the human spirit in mental health services

Malcolm Phillips outlined the concept of Sakhu as first introduced by Dr Naim Akbar (1985) and refined as Skh Djr by Dr Wade Nobes (2013). Malcolm explored how an understanding of African and Caribbean people from such an African worldview allows for a positive reframing and illumination of our therapeutic engagement and creates the potential for recovery and growth. 

Throughout the presentation, he drew on examples from his work where he attempted to incorporate an understanding of African Spirituality (or Sahku) into practice in our mental health services in individual and group work.

Malcolm took us to another level when he explained that eminent Black Psychology thinkers had found that the Greek word ‘psyche’ comes from the Kemitic word ‘Sakhu’, meaning the illumination of the soul. By this point we were in no doubt about the origins of therapeutic practice in African spirituality. 

Mentalism in African Indigenous Spiritual Philosophy 

Verona Spence-Adofo explored the relevance of the principle of Mentalism in African Spiritual Philosophy and its connection to the wellbeing of the Person. The presentation delved into the Universal laws of Tehuti and how it is used in ritual practice to shape and manage one's reality and holistic health. It explored how it provides motivation, purpose and a firm foundation for emotional and physical health. 

Verona went on to posit African Indigenous Spirituality as a necessary component of the field of Psychology, to broaden its knowledge-base of various healing modalities that can be utilised for psychological and emotional wellbeing. She was equally cogent in her argument when she spoke about how African spirituality affords us a holistic understanding of ourselves as spiritual beings having a human experience.


Reflections from the day were positive, with one attendee describing the session as ‘incredibly inspiring, so much more full of life than I've become used to in CPDs’, and another commenting ‘The “what has moved you moment of reflection” saw some beautiful and honest insights, thank you for adding that element, a more interactive approach.’

Now we need all to take this forward in work, practice and engagement. What will you do?

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