We recently sat down with Mthetho Tshemese, a Certified and Practising South African psychologist. While in private practice, he often appears on television shows, speaks at conferences, is involved in the creative industry, is very active on twitter, and was recently appointed by the Deputy President to the South African National AIDS Council’s Trust. He is also known as the Village Shrink. This psychologist however is not your average shrink – his clients include professional boxers, soccer players and he mentors young men, including the Hip Hop outfit, Driemanskap. Perhaps the field of psychology is broader than one expects.
BD: How did you pick psychology?
MT: Chance. I went to the University of Western Cape to do my first year in 1995. I majored in psychology and political studies. It was while studying Psychopathology textbooks that I figured that there were things I’d always been feeling but didn’t know had names like depression, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and suicide ideation. In 1998 I had to focus my post-graduate studies and had 3 options: political studies, developmental studies, or psychology. I chose psychology after seeking counsel from one of my mentors from Mdantsane Township in East London, Mr Zola Bonkolo. He told me, there were few Black psychologists and I’d make a better contribution there. I hope he was right.
BD: It appears he was. Where are you from?
MT: I was born in Cape Town 37 years ago and my mother went back to her folks when I was 3 and she was pregnant with my young brother, Mthetheleli. Now, that’s quite something, I mean her going back to her folks. At 19, she was abducted and forced into marrying some old ninja. That was her destiny and her family knew about the abduction. Obviously, my mother had other plans and left the Ninja after 3 months and left for Cape Town with her boyfriend, my father, whom she married. With the benefit of hindsight, it was an incredibly courageous thing for her to do, especially then. I salute her courage, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this interview. When she came back from Cape Town mother stayed with my maternal grandparents in the rural village, Qhukru, Mt Coke, in the Eastern Cape Province. Apparently, at age five I was asking old people very strange and piercing questions and they felt I needed to go to school. Thing is, the schools in Qhukru said I was too young and my mother’s sister suggested I go to the township school in Mdantsane, where she and her husband, the late Mr. Sonwabo Balindlela, raised me as their own son together with my cousin, Mxolisi. Of course, my mother would come visit us but the daily parenting fell on my aunt and uncle. It was a loving, modest home. Materially, we were not well off but every Friday my Father would buy me and my cousin French Polony to eat. Each person would have their own Polony and we would feast until our taste buds couldn’t taste it no more. I don’t care who says what, that was quite a privileged upbringing of sorts. We went to church every Sunday. Father was a priest and later an Elder at the Old Apostolic Church, and both I and my cousin had to contend with the burden of being the Priest’s sons.
BD: So what about your upbringing might have prepared you for the work you are doing now, and the impact you are having?
MT: Growing up in a religious and spiritual home there were, almost always, people at our home. Sometimes, it was prayer meetings, political meetings hidden as prayer meetings, and on special occasions, people who came for counselling. I would be asked to make tea – apparently, I made the best tea – and as an 8 year old kid would end up hearing huge secrets being discussed, from infidelity, erectile dysfunction, impotence to infertility. I don’t know if they thought I could not hear the things that they were talking about and somehow I knew I could not talk about these things and I’d be surprised at how Father would calmly and effortlessly provide counsel. I could also see that people always felt, and looked better than when they came in distress. As a man of the cloth, he always emphasised two things: hope, and God’s love in spite of our sins. It was magical how he affected people. I remember wanting to be like him and even thought I would end up a pastor. When he passed on in 2000 a part of me died with him and I am not sure if I’ve fully healed from that loss. Perhaps, I’ve learned to live with it.
BD: What is the process of psychotherapy? How does it work?
MT: It’s using psychology theories to understand human behaviour and helping formulate and figure out what causes people to be in psychological distress and to help them deal with their problems using psychotherapeutic techniques. Far from what many people think, it is a complex and methodical process. It works when those seeking help feel their emotions are validated which in turn makes them feel understood and are able to have a healthy experience and feel empowered to face their challenges without feeling completely disempowered or overwhelmed by their problems. One important thing that therapy offers is to be comfortable in your discomfort, for people to be able to sit in the midst of what is probably a very bad situation and live with themselves and what they are going through. Therapy helps people realize that you have choices in every situation, what those choices are and how you might process that. As a therapist I always try to help differentiate between healthy and unhealthy choices and it is up to the person, couple, or family to choose which option to take. I think the most important thing I’ve seen is that therapy gives people hope, that they can and will make it through, and that things will get better.
BD: Kind of like what your father did. Psychotherapy sometimes relies on rethinking, or reconsidering the past, which sometimes is just too painful to do. When people come to you, how do you know what to do, how do you make that process easier?
MT: People keep coming back so I must be doing something right. What I’ve had to learn in the past 10 plus years is allowing myself not to know. Therapy is, among other things, space for discovery and re-discovery and every person I see has a unique experience of what they are going through. My duty is to assess and accept them, provide a therapeutic frame that makes them feel courageous enough to talk about things that are anxiety-provoking, shameful, guilt-inducing without feeling judged. To do that I have to be present in the here and now while also listening with “a third ear.” Furthermore, being a psychotherapist, you always have to be a student of psychology and learn from your clients/patients. After all, they are the best teachers. Patrick Casement has 3 beautiful books every Psychotherapist, or anyone in the field of Mental Health should have: On Learning from the Patient; Further Learning from the Patient; and Learning from Our Mistakes. I’ve found these books to be very useful in how I approach my work. Early this year, I joined Bryanwood Therapy and Assessment Centre in Bryanston. I see couples and individuals. Couples therapy seems to take a bit more of my time.
BD: What’s the hardest thing about being a psychotherapist?
MT: The work can be emotionally draining sometimes and one has to know when to take a break and recharge the batteries. Also, I find that socially as soon as people know what I do for a living they want to tell me a problem or two. Oftentimes, you don’t get immediate results like you would when you go and extract a tooth from a Dentist. Lastly, friends sometimes blur the lines just like when dating some people expect you to be a therapist instead of a partner or a friend.
BD: I bet. It must make people a bit self-conscious, like they are being analysed! What’s the most gratifying?
MT: Being entrusted to facilitate people’s healing. There can be no greater honour than that.
BD: What are some of the myths or preconceptions about psychotherapy and how do we get past those?
MT: One of the biggest myths is that psychotherapy is for white people or that going for therapy means you are emotionally weak. We need to do more psycho-education and debunk these myths. Thankfully, there are organisations, like the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) who do a lot of outreach work and that helps in challenging the myths. A lot of times people don’t get the results they expect, they don’t see an outcome that they wanted, but sometimes that’s because they come to the process too late, when too much damage has been done. So when couples break up after psychotherapy instead of figuring out a way to stay together, often each person is in so much pain already, and they’ve hurt each other so much, that psychotherapy just helps them break up better. But the psychotherapy doesn’t cause the breakup. One of the challenges too is the financial cost. Seeing a Private therapist is very expensive and there aren’t many Mental Health practitioners to serve the poor. Considering our history I find that unethical and bordering on being immoral. Government has classified Psychological services as a scarce skill. Health insurance companies can be more creative and supportive to help people prevent instead of only treating mental illnesses.
BD: How are men today coping? What are their struggles, and in what ways can women help their brothers, fathers, partners?
MT: Men are human beings first. For this reason, they have a range of varied emotions and also struggle with some emotions. The best way to help men is to acknowledge their emotions and encourage them to seek help instead of acting out. Thankfully, there are organisations that work with men, like Sonke Gender Justice.
“Patriarchy is one system that affects how men and boys are socialised as functional superiors to women and girls. We must fight this in all our areas of functioning, including through group and individual psychotherapy where we help men reach the best possible, healthy emotional state they can ever achieve.”
BD: How are men and women’s approaches to therapy the same? Different? How does that affect your approach?
MT: People are people and have emotions. However, there are gender studies on men and masculinities, women and these have specific approaches that may be more helpful in working with men and women. As Psychotherapists we cannot provide acontextual services. Women have struggles that need a particular kind of psychological formulation and so do men. Also, patriarchy is one system that affects how men and boys are socialised as functional superiors to women and girls. We must fight this in all our areas of functioning, including through group and individual psychotherapy where we help men reach the best possible, healthy emotional state they can ever achieve.
BD: And where did the Village Shrink come from, how did that phrase catch on? Is he a persona? Or is he you?
MT (laughs): At one point in my life, I had to go back home to take care of some family issues. It’s a small town, and I ended up talking to a lot of people there, just trying to help them out as they approached me for counsel. People just needed help with their issues, the need is so overwhelming – people’s situations get so complicated, and even moreso by lack of access to resources. Anyway, one day somebody said you know, you’re like the Village Shrink. Like every town has a village baker and butcher, a village barber, I’m the Village Shrink. I liked it because it’s like my services are open to anyone in the village, that they are accessible, anyone can just come and get help. I also liked that it shows psychotherapy as a basic need of every community. So yeah, I’m the Village Shrink. South Africa is my village (laughs).
BD: What’s coming up next? Can you tell us about your upcoming show? How can we get in touch with you?
MT: In December, we are shooting a brand new TV show called “The Village Shrink.” It is part of a brand new channel, Good Life Network which will be launched soon and the show seeks to promote open dialogue about mental health, reduce stigma and discrimination of people living with mental illnesses while also debunking some myths and stereotypes about mental health. It will be flighted on DSTV during my birthday month, February 2016. I’m super excited about the show.
BD: We will definitely be looking forward to it. Hopefully it will open minds about what psychotherapy is, and what it can do.
Reach Mthetho Tshemese, the Village Shrink:
Tel: (011) 706 2269/0979
Follow him on Twitter: @VillageShrink