Online Program

Forgiveness and mental health in South Africa after apartheid

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Hannah Carliner, MPH, ScD(c), Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Harvard University School of Public Health, Boston, MA
Stephen E. Gilman, Sc.D., Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences and Department of Epidemiology, Harvard University School of Public Health, Boston, MA
David R. Williams, PhD, MPH, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, African and African American Studies, and Sociology, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, MA
Psychological theory discusses the importance of forgiveness in recovery from violence and intentional trauma victimization. Studies show that forgiveness is associated with reduced anger, better physical health, fewer negative coping behaviors, and better mental health following interpersonal as well as armed conflict. This study uses data from a nationally representative probability survey of 4,351 adult South Africans between the years 2002 and 2004, including a sub-sample of participants (N=380) who experienced human rights violations (HRVs) under apartheid. Past-month non-specific psychological distress, as measured by the Kessler K10 scale, was regressed on z-standardized global feelings about forgiveness or revenge towards others, controlling for demographic variables (race, sex, age, and education). Overall, higher global attitudes about forgiveness and lower attitudes of vengefulness towards others were associated with better mental health (β= -0.79, 95%CI: -1.05, -0.53). This association persisted even among the participants reporting HRVs (β= -1.39, 95%CI: -2.33, -0.45). In this sub-group, a one standard deviation increase in forgiveness was associated with a 1.39 unit decrease in K10 score (theoretical range: 10-50). These results are consistent with findings of previous studies and suggest that interventions to promote feelings of forgiveness following interpersonal or structural violence may help alleviate harmful psychiatric consequences of such violations. Given that structural violence and conflict continues throughout the world, these findings suggest the importance of further longitudinal analyses so that we can better understand the potential for promoting forgiveness as a strategy in lessening the suffering of conflict survivors.

Learning Areas:

Public health or related research
Social and behavioral sciences

Learning Objectives:
Analyze the association between global forgiveness measures and past-month mental health in a population sample of South Africans. Assess the association between forgiveness and mental health among survivors of apartheid-era human rights violations.

Keyword(s): Mental Health, Human Rights

Presenting author's disclosure statement:

Qualified on the content I am responsible for because: I am a doctoral candidate studying social and psychiatric epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. This dataset and research question are part of my dissertation project, where I work closely with my co-authors.
Any relevant financial relationships? No

I agree to comply with the American Public Health Association Conflict of Interest and Commercial Support Guidelines, and to disclose to the participants any off-label or experimental uses of a commercial product or service discussed in my presentation.