Contextualising women’s mental distress and coping strategies in the time of AIDS: a rural South African case study
Increasing attention is paid to impacts of HIV/AIDS on women’s mental health, often framed by decontextualized psychiatric understandings of emotional distress and treatment. We contribute to the small qualitative literature extending these findings through exploring HIV/AIDS-affected women’s own accounts of their distress – focusing on the impacts of social context, and women’s efforts to cope outside of medical support services. Nineteen in-depth interviews were conducted with women experiencing depression or anxiety-like symptoms in a wider study of services in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Thematic analysis was framed by Summerfield’s emphasis on contexts and resilience. Women highlighted family conflicts (particularly abandonment by men), community-level violence, poverty and HIV/AIDS as drivers of distress. Whilst HIV/AIDS placed significant burdens on women, poverty and relationship difficulties were more central in their accounts. Four coping mechanisms were identified. Women drew on indigenous local resources in their psychological re-framing of negative situations, and their mobilisation of emotional and financial support from inter-personal networks, churches and HIV support groups. Less commonly, they sought expert advice from traditional healers, medical services or social workers, but access to these was limited. Though all tried to supplement government grants with income generation efforts, only a minority regarded these as successful. Findings support on-going efforts to bolster strained mental health services with support groups which often offer valuable emotional and practical support. Without parallel poverty alleviation strategies however, support groups may sometimes offer little more than encouraging passive acceptance of the inevitability of suffering — potentially exacerbating the hopelessness underpinning women’s distress.