A Community Approach and A Second Chance

four children playing outside In Khayelitsha, childhood trauma is addressed within the community in ways that support and empower children, their families, and the community.

That wasn’t the case, until Empilweni- A Place of Healing, initiated its community-based mental health care services.

Established in 1994 as a research project of the Department of Mental Health and Psychiatry at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, Empilweni is now an independent organization that provides mental health care for children, adolescents, and their families.

Khayelitsha is one of Cape Town’s largest, poorest, and most violent townships, where 38% of the population is under 15. Listening to research that strongly suggests domestic abuse and community violence have an intergenerational  cycle—those who have witnessed it or were victims as children are more likely to be perpetrators as adults, and engage  in delinquent or risky behaviors—Empilweni uses a model of early intervention.

Facilitating crisis counseling for children, family counseling, and parent support groups, they support children who would otherwise fall through the cracks to strengthen their ability to cope with trauma. Empilweni also works with children who are sexually abused and children both infected and affected by HIV and AIDS and their caregivers.

Their therapeutic model incorporates western clinical child and adolescent psychology with traditional and cultural beliefs. The combined approach has a powerful effect on bringing healing to local communities.

Recreational activities for children build their confidence and a sense of security as well as a “safety-net” for youth.2 boys smiling

For many young people, Empilweni’s support means a second chance.

At the age of 15, Melusi, (not his real name) was brought to Empilweni by his Grandmother. He was skipping school, hanging out with a ‘bad crowd,” and increasingly in trouble. Melusi’s grandmother became concerned when a neighbor told her that he had been involved in a car hijacking. When she searched in his closet she found a gun.

She knew immediately that she had to do something.

Rather than focus on the problem, Empilweni’s Counselors started off by getting to know Melusi and his life story. They learned that he and his grandmother were not related. Melusi was abandoned by his mother at birth and raised by a foster mother. When his foster mother was murdered in a domestic violence incident that he witnessed, her mother took Melusi into her care.

Melusi was struggling to cope with the loss of the only mother he had known. He had especially been affected by witnessing her violent death.

One of Empilweni’s psychiatrists worked closely with him, providing individual therapy for depression and post-traumatic stress. This provided a space to work through the loss, anger, and grief, as well as his feelings of abandonment by his biological mother. As he made progress, Melusi joined a support group for adolescents who suffered from similar loss.

But his treatment did not end there.

Part of Melusi’s healing journey was a desire to find his biological mother. Empilweni’s Social Workers were able to find her and facilitate a meeting between them. Although the relationship was strained, he was able to ask questions about his family of origin, his clan, and about his father.

Today, Melusi is one of the leading players on Empilweni Big Lion soccer team. He is back in school, focused, and with improved grades. He is able to provide support to youth facing similar challenges.

Sixteen years since it was founded, Empilweni remains the primary referral source for mental health care at area schools and clinics and the department of social welfare. They recently expanded to a nearby township, Mfuleni, to provide the first mental health services.

For Melusi and more than 306 children and youth who access these mental health services, Empilweni is not just a place of healing. It is a beacon of hope.