Empilweni puts children first

Professor Brian Robertson, founder of Empilweni Place of Healing, tells Vukani about their work in Khayelitsha.

When Professor Brian Robertson realised that few children from the black townships were being treated at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Memorial Hospital for mental health conditions, he opted to embark on a rigorous mission to raise awareness about these illnesses.

Professor Robertson, who was the head of the Children and Adolescent Psychiatric department at the hospital at the time, said he noticed that few children from African cultures were referred to them.

In 1993 he teamed up with three women to research and end myths about mental health problems and educate the community about it.

They also wanted to determine whether people understood mental health-related problems.

As part of the research, they interviewed 500 families. It was at the end of their research that residents pleaded with them to provide some help for their children.

So, in 1994 he decided to establish the Empilweni Place of Healing to tackle mental conditions.

The organisation is run from the Metropolitan offices in Ilitha Park.

It tackles emotional problems facing children such as behavioural problems, substance abuse, anxiety disorders and depression.

It works with children from the age of four until they complete high school.

When the organisation started it had about 60 children, but they now work with about 600 children annually.

Professor Robertson said when they started with the research, people showed a lack of knowledge about mental health while others were unable to travel to the hospital due to the cost.

“The myths that we got was that African children are not affected by mental health problems,” he said. “We had to do a lot of community workshops to educate people.”

Professor Robertson explained that they also offer individual counselling in about four to six sessions. They also have youth counselling sessions to help parents to understand the health problems faced by their children.

They also place parents in their three-month counselling and assessment programme to advise them with better ways to deal with their children’s condition.

He noted that over the years they discovered that teenagers who fell pregnant faced stigma in the community, and in some cases their own family members reject them.

He added that they then opted to establish a first service special programme to help teenager mothers to make informed decisions and not to isolate themselves from the society.

He said they have tried to expand the programme to other parts of the community but due to limited funding they were battling to do so.

He highlighted that they have recently opened a branch in Mfuleni but were battling to be fully operational due to lack of funds. He said the residents appealed to them to provide a service that would address this issue.