The History of Empilweni

Empilweni was started following an epidemiological study conducted in Khayelitsha in 1993 by the University of Cape Town’s Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health. The aim of the study was to explore the prevalence of child and adolescent mental health problems and the reasons for low rates of service utilisation. While a significant prevalence was confirmed, lack of understanding of mental health problems and the inaccessibility of services appeared to be the main reasons for the low rates of utilisation.

An unexpected outcome of the study was that parents were educated about the nature of child and adolescent mental health problems, and as a result, parents asked us to provide services in Khayelitsha. The research team, under Professor Brian Robertson, agreed to seek funding for a demonstration project, and from 1994 to 2002 the “Empilweni Demonstration Project” was funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) through the University of Cape Town. The local community was approached for permission to establish a mental health service for children aged 4 – 18 years, which was to be based in the community, and staffed and managed by them, with support and training from the university

Three of the field workers from the research study, who were women from Khayelitsha, applied to be counsellors in the project, and were given intensive training during the first half of 1994, together with a social worker who would manage the day to day running of the project. In the second half of 1994 they started the service, which operated from a container in the grounds of the Site C Community Health Centre. Subsequently the project moved to the SHAWCO building in Site B before finally locating to its current situation in the Metropolitan Life Building in Ilitha Park. Services offered included individual, family and group counselling, as well as advocacy and community education and training by means of radio and workshops. Parents, teachers, and NGO workers, among others, were invited to these workshops. Social work students completed their practical training at the project, and many volunteers were trained with the intention that some would go on to be employed at the project. Supervision was provided by the university research team who also provided psychological and psychiatric services, and lead further research studies in the area.

When DFID was no longer able to continue funding the project, a decision was taken by all involved to become independent of the university and to apply for registration as an NPO. During 2002, the year of transition, a fundraiser was recruited, and the first director Monika Edwards was appointed to start in 2003. Some members of the research team together with members of the existing advisory Board, who represented the community, constituted the new Board, of what was now called simply “Empilweni”.

Over the next few years several developments took place. A funding base was established, which included the Western Cape Department for Social Development, who designated Empilweni as their local child and adolescent mental health agency. Staffing was restructured, with one of the counsellor posts being converted into a service manager’s post, and a satellite service was opened at Mfuleni.

When Monika Edwards indicated her intention to resign, a new director Mhongwe Mtshotshisa was appointed to start in 2009. Following her resignation in 2015, Melinda Bechus stepped in for a year until the current director William Williams was appointed in 2017. Currently the staffing complement consists of a director, a service manager, a social worker, three counsellors who are qualified social auxiliary workers, and an administrative assistant. A clinical psychologist is employed to provide supervision on a part-time basis.