Research News

What happens when Western psychiatry goes global?

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Western psychiatric science has extended its influence over the world. Anthropologists who study psychiatry and mental health will explore the consequences at a Vanderbilt University conference.

“The Global Psyche: Experiments in Ethics, Politics and Technoscience” will be held March 16-17 at Vanderbilt and is organized by professors Dominique Béhague, Kenneth MacLeish and Jonathan Metzl of the Center for Medicine, Health and Society (MHS) at Vanderbilt.

“As anthropologists, we look at mental illness as a real form of suffering, but also as something that reflects and expresses cultural and political values and beliefs,” says Béhague, associate professor of MHS at Vanderbilt. “It’s not surprising that when psychiatry travels the globe, it is put to different uses in different places. The question of what happens when Western psychiatry goes global is particularly important at the moment, since according to some scholars, neuroscience and psychiatric research are on the verge of potential paradigm shift in the way we understand the relationship between brain, body, culture and environment.”

The conference also explores critiques of psychiatry over issues like the aggressive distribution of pyschopharmaceutical drugs worldwide, the move away from prevention of mental illness and the insensitivity of “universal” psychiatric research to local cultural perspectives.

Putting scholarly and medical perspectives together is important for understanding mental illness, according to MacLeish, an assistant professor at MHS. “Everything from innovations in genetics and brain science to the ways that communities of people mobilize around diagnoses like PTSD or depression shows us that [rquote]the meanings of mental illness are diverse and dynamic – and political,”[/rquote] MacLeish says. “That’s what makes this an exciting topic for anthropology, and it’s what makes anthropology relevant for people who care about mental health.”

Papers to be presented at the conference include a look at the politics and effects of the rise of right-wing nationalism; the medication of war trauma in American military veterans; grassroots drug rehabilitation among the working poor in Mexico; the rise of psychiatric metrics in Senegal; dilemmas of preventative psychiatry for dementia care in Japan; the role of mental health in current migration and refugee crises; the ethics of addiction treatment in Russia; and poor Brazilian youths’ creative uses of psychotherapy to voice resistance to discrimination.

The keynote speeches are free and open to the public. Those are:

Allan Young, Marjorie Bronfman Professor in Social Studies of Medicine at McGill University, at 5 p.m. Thursday, March 16, in Room 201 of Alumni Hall, on “Does the Brain Have a Mind of its Own?” – with discussant Stephan Heckers, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Vanderbilt.

Margaret Lock, the Marjorie Bronfman Professor Emerita in Social Studies of Medicine at McGill University, at 12:15 p.m. Friday, March 17, in the auditorium of the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center on “The Embedded Psyche: The Anthropocene, Postgenomics and the Microbiome” – with discussant Beth Conklin, assistant professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology, Vanderbilt.

See the conference website for information about other conference participants.

“The Global Psyche: Experiments in Ethics, Politics and Technoscience” conference is sponsored by the Center for Medicine, Health and Society, Department of Psychiatry and Behavior Sciences, Department of Anthropology, Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center and the Office of Active Citizenship and Service, all of Vanderbilt.

Funding is provided by the Research Scholar Grants program in the Office of the Provost at Vanderbilt; Vanderbilt International Resources; and the Trans-Institutional Program (TIPS) initiative at Vanderbilt