Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 38, Issue 4, pp 700–711 | Cite as

The Invisibility of Informal Interpreting in Mental Health Care in South Africa: Notes Towards a Contextual Understanding

  • Leslie SwartzEmail author
  • Sanja Kilian
Original Paper


Despite South Africa’s constitutional commitment to equality, represented by 11 official languages and the promotion of South African Sign Language, many users of the public health system receive treatment from people who cannot speak their language, and there are no formal interpreting services. This is a legacy of service provision from the apartheid era, and interpreting is currently undertaken by nurses, cleaners, security guards, and family members of patients, amongst others. We provide a preliminary outline of proximal and distal issues which may bear upon this situation. Changing understandings of the nature of careers in the health field, international trends in mental health theory and practice toward crude biologism, and ongoing patterns of social exclusion and stigma all contribute not only to a continuing state of compromised linguistic access to mental health care, but also to processes of rendering invisible the actual work of care in the mental health field.


Interpreting Mental health South Africa Psychiatric Services Language diversity 



We are grateful for the technical support provided by Jacqueline Gamble, and we thank the anonymous reviewers for their very helpful comments. This work is based on research supported in part by the Medical Research Council and National Research Foundation of South Africa (Grant specific unique reference number (UID) 85423); The Grantholder (Leslie Swartz) acknowledges that opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in any publication generated by the MRC- and NRF-supported research are those of the authors, and that the MRC and NRF accept no liability whatsoever in this regard.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Alan J Flisher Centre for Public Mental Health, Department of PsychologyStellenbosch UniversityMatielandSouth Africa

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