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Maria Marchetti-Mercer

Professor and Clinical Psychologist

Specializing in Families and Emigration

Prof Maria Marchetti Mercer

Emigration is one of the most life changing events that a person can undergo and it requires tremendous planning and preparation. Emotional and social preparation should be part of this.


My research in the past decade has shown that the impact of emigration on South African families is extensive and multifold. Firstly, those who plan to emigrate understandably tend to focus on the logistical and practical demands associated with leaving and finding a new home in an unfamiliar country. As a result they often tend to overlook proper psychological preparation nor sufficiently take into account how different members of the family will be impacted by this massive decision.


Secondly, I have become very aware of the fact that the experiences of the family members and friends left behind are often ignored. This latter group often experiences a sense of deep loss and feelings similar to bereavement when loved ones emigrate.  This is often exacerbated in the case of the elderly who may also lose their social support system and the opportunity to see their grandchildren grow up.


Families therefore find themselves having to negotiate a number of interpersonal difficulties before, during and after the migration unless a number of psychological issues are addressed pre-emptively.


My goal as a clinician, a researcher and someone who has a personal history of emigration is therefore to assist people who choose to embark on this journey as well as their loved ones. I prepare people to think through the kind of personal, familiar and social challenges they are likely to encounter as they decide to emigrate, so that the processes of leaving all that is familiar and integrating into a new country may be more manageable. I also help them negotiate their departure with their loved ones who are staying behind.


I also have a specific interest in helping people work through the vacuum of loss left behind by those emigrating; the loss of those they love, the loss of family traditions, the loss of continuity of generations and the loss of the support group that loves them unconditionally and to whom they need never explain themselves.


Finally, it is important to remember that people returning to their home country after a period living abroad may experience stresses similar to their initial emigration. Even a return “home” can be experienced as a new migration as the people involved, as well as the people and country left behind, have  changed irrevocably.  It is therefore essential to guide people through these often unexpected challenges.

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Maria Marchetti-Mercer

Office 123 Emthonjeni Centre

Wits University

1 Jan Smuts Avenue, Braamfontein

Phone Number: (082)997-8023

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Practice Specialities

Emigration preparation and emigration preparation talks.

Psychotherapy to assist with the relational losses following emigration of family and friends.

Support for expats returning to South Africa.

General psychotherapy for adults and families.

I have received BWRT® Level 1 training and am able to assist adults specifically with issues around trauma, grief and specific phobias. 

Psychotherapy in Italian.


  • BA Humanities (cum laude)

  • BA Honours Philosophy

  • BA Honours Psychology (cum laude)

  • MA Clinical Psychology (cum laude)

  • D.Litt. et Phil Psychology

  • Certified in BWRT® Level 1 (Issued by the Institute of Brain Working Recursive Therapy, Essex, UK)


Practice #: 8618291 - HPCSA #: PS0028401

About Maria

Maria Marchetti-Mercer was born in Milan (Italy) and moved to South Africa in the mid-seventies. She studied at the Rand Afrikaans University (now University of Johannesburg) where she obtained a B.A. (Humanities) (cum laude), B.A. (Hons) (Philosophy), B.A. (Psychology) (cum laude), MA (Clinical Psychology) (cum laude) and D. Litt. et Phil.  in Psychology with a thesis on the Milan School of family therapy.


She worked as a researcher at the Human Sciences Research council in 1990 where she was part of the National research team on Family Murder and then at the University of Johannesburg as a lecturer until December 1994. In 1995 she moved to the University of Pretoria as a senior lecturer. She was promoted to associate professor in 2000 and then to full-professor in 2004. She was appointed as Chair of the department of Psychology (the first woman to hold this position in the department) in October 2001 and she served in this position until December 2011.  In 2012 she moved to the University of the Witwatersrand where she served as the Head of the School of Human and Community Development until December 2016. She is now a Professor in the department of Psychology at Wits.


She has been involved in the training of professional psychologists for nearly 20 years and has a special interest and expertise in family therapy. She has also received advanced postgraduate family therapy training in Italy under the mentorship of Proffs. Mara Selvini Palazzoli and Maurizio Andolfi.


She is a C2 rated National Research Foundation scientist attesting to her standing as a researcher. Her most current area of research is the impact of emigration on South African families. She has published widely in this area and has presented her research at a number of conferences both nationally and internationally. She has also presented her work at a number of universities abroad such as Yale, Georgia State University, the University of San Francisco, the University of Western Australia and the Auckland University of Technology.


She is a fellow of the Oxford Symposium of School-based Family counseling and in 2008 she received an award from the Institute for School-Based Family Counseling and the University of San Francisco Center for Child and Family Development for outstanding international contributions to School-Based Family Counseling presented at Brasenose College, Oxford University. In 2010 she received an award for the Best poster for her work entitled, “Relational bereavement in emigration: Those staying behind,” at the 7th European Family Therapy Conference, Paris, 30 October 2010.

Articles & Media

Maria Pretoria News Image

Hearts in Exile

Enigrations and SA

There's being "dead and gone" and there's being "gone but not dead"....

Maria Pretoria The Star Image

Torn Hearts

Left Behind

'Death' of relationships has far-reaching effects.

Maria Pretoria The Independent



Emigration isn't just an historical part of South African culture...

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do I need psychological preparation prior to emigrating? I am very sure about my decision and my family and friends support me!

Often, people planning to emigrate are very focused on the practical aspects of the move such as – among others – selling their house, packing up their belongings, finding a new job, obtaining visas, finding new accommodation and finding a new school for their children. This leaves little time to focus on the more interpersonal aspects of emigration.


There are, however, a number of issues that should be explored before you leave. First of all, it is important to make sure that everyone in the family is equally committed to the move and to identify any underlying couple/family issues that need to be resolved prior to the emigration. The stress of the move and the unfamiliar new environment may trigger these issues at a later stage, at which point they are exacerbated by the unfamiliar new environment. Children are particularly vulnerable as they are often not involved in the decision-making process and it is important to help prepare them for the move.


Communicating your decision to family and friends is also crucial and may affect how relationships will be maintained later. This may involve issues such as how you will stay in touch, what kind of media will you use and how often, will there be regular visits, and what will you do in times of crisis?


If you are leaving elderly parents behind it is important to decide who will take care of them and negotiate their care with with siblings/other family members. It may also be important to discuss possible financial issues re caregiving.

Living in South Africa is very stressful so I can’t see that I will experience any stresses in my new country?

Every person and family will experience the move differently. Research has shown that generally people move through different phases of adaptation once in a new country. Initially you are likely to be quite excited about the new country and all the new things associated with it. Coming from a country like South Africa – where issues of personal safety and restricted movement are prevalent – you may enjoy your newfound freedom and sense of safety. For example, many people comment on how happy they are to see their children walking to school and being able to play in the streets.


However, with time, you may experience more feelings of homesickness and missing your family and friends.  This may take place at certain times of the year such as religious festivals or birthdays. You may have to deal with the hurt or anger of the people you have left behind which can be difficult to understand and manage. You may also start missing certain things perculiar to South Africa such as your favourite foods (although many overseas stores carry South African products!)

My children have all emigrated and I will never get to see my grandchildren grow up, how do I survive?

It can be incredibly difficult for older people with children and grandchildren living abroad. Life can be very lonely and you may watch your friends spending lots of time with their families watching their grandchildren grow up with great sadness.


The new technology available to us is useful to maintain contact, although, some may tend to find it alienating. It is, therefore, important for people to process their feelings of loss and find new ways to build social connections which will help combat the loneliness.

My best friend just left for Canada and I am so angry with her, how do I manage these feelings?

Many of us have had friends and colleagues emigrate and it is normal to experience a range of negative feelings under these circumstances. You may find that your friend shared the news of having decided to emigrate in an excited manner which left you feeling hurt as he or she did not take into consideration your feelings of loss.


Many people, when leaving the country, may “badmouth” the country – over-idealizing the country of destination and making you doubt your own decision to remain in South Africa. This may put you at odds with your friends as you have to negotiate different world views.

I want to emigrate but my partner is not sure? What do we do?

It is important that both members of a couple be equally committed to the move and both see themselves benefiting from the emigration. If one partner is not committed or undecided problems may arise later.


Therefore, these issues have to be discussed in depth so that a mutually beneficial decision can be made.

Will medical aid pay for these kind of sessions?

Most medical aids provide cover for psychotherapy and I charge Discovery medical aid rates.  It may be a good idea to check with your own medical aid before you begin with psychotherapy. Rates for specific workshops / presentations may be negotiated depending on the number of people attending but these will typically not be covered by medical aids.

Maria Pretoria Psycologies Article Magazine

Services Offered

Emigration Preparation

I offer individual/family therapy focusing on addressing the psychological challenges mentioned above. This can range between two to four sessions of 60 minutes each. Alternatively, I can offer a three hour workshop for a family or groups of individuals/families planning to emigrate.

General Psychotherapy

I also offer general psychotherapy services for individuals and families who are looking for psychological support. I work from an interactional/systemic perspective trying to understand the individual within the context of his/her relationships and social systems.


Psychotherapy to assist with the relational losses following emigration of family and friends. I offer individual/family/group therapy focusing on addressing the issues of loss associated with family emigration. This may be more of a long-term psychotherapy with sessions of 50 minutes each.
Post-Emigration Support

Psychotherapy to assist with the relational losses following emigration of family and friends. I offer individual/family/group therapy focusing on addressing the issues of loss associated with family emigration. This may be more of a long-term psychotherapy with sessions of 60 minutes each.

Emigration Returnees

Return Immigration Support

Psychotherapy with individuals / families returning to South Africa after living abroad. I offer individual / family therapy focusing on addressing the issues of  returning to South Africa. This may be more of a long-term psychotherapy with sessions of 60 minutes each.

Emigration Preparation Talks
Emigration Preparation Talks

Available for specific groups of people who may have a specific interest/ need in terms of any psychological aspect related to emigration.

I offer psychotherapy with Italians living here and / or expats if you are here for a certain period of time.

Sessions In Italian

Psychotherapy for  Italians living in South Africa wanting mother-tongue therapy.