The next few months we’ll be highlighting authors who have published in Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry.
Dr. Michael Galvin is a Global Psychiatry Clinical Research Fellow and in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard University and the Department of Psychiatry at Boston University. Dr. Michael Galvin is a global health researcher and psychotherapist. His primary research interests center on mental health and the role that one’s environment, culture, and belief systems play in mental illness and treatment. In particular, his work focuses on elucidating cultural models of mental illness and exploring relationships to pathways to care, with the goal of improving cultural adaptation of mental health interventions.
What is your article “Examining the Etiology and Treatment of Mental Illness Among Vodou Priests in Northern Haiti“ about?
This article is about the way that traditional healers (ougan) conceptualize and treat mental illness in rural Northern Haiti. While the vast majority of people with mental illness seek treatment from ougan in this region – as few biomedical services exist – very little research has examined what ougan actually do when treating patients. The article also tries to understand how mental illness is viewed from the healer’s perspective, delving into the broader Vodou cosmology which remains very influential in rural parts of Haiti.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your research interests.
My interests mostly center around mental illness and how we conceptualize it in different cultures and settings. Historically, mental illness has always been hard for people to understand, getting wrapped up in ideas of spirit and demon possession. Rarely have people thought it was something to treat like a broken leg or even a bacterial infection. This is partly because there are no biomarkers to test for it thus patients recount what they are experiencing solely via self-report. But it’s also because mental illness affects the basic ways in which people act and simply exist in the world. When our loved ones have significant behavioral changes without physical symptoms of illness or infection it can often lead us to suspect the supernatural.
What drew you to this project?
I have been working and living in Haiti on and off since 2012 and knew I wanted to focus my dissertation research in Cap-Haïtien. I found out about the Mental Health Center at Morne Pelé in 2018 and spent the entire summer of 2019 volunteering with them so we could get to know each other, for me to better understand what their work was like, and to start exploring different angles for my dissertation research which I conducted in the second half of 2020. It was during the summer of 2019 that I learned about the extent to which patients held explanatory models based in Vodou and I knew that had to become a significant part of my research there. I’m currently the director of the Mental Health Center at Morne Pelé’s new Research Laboratory so it’s very exciting to continue to collaborate together.
What was one of the most interesting findings?
One of the most interesting findings was this treatment called fiksyon that almost all the healers I interviewed used. Barely anything has been written about these concoctions so this was really one of the first times they’ve been explored. Fiksyon are different liquids – usually rum mixed with ground plants and animals – that are kept in large unmarked semi-transparent plastic bottles. There’s a lot of mystery surrounding fiksyon with many people saying they have mystical properties. It would be interesting to explore more about what is actually in them and the places where they are manufactured
What are you reading, listening to, and/or watching right now?
I’m reading a really interesting book that was written in the 1970s called Plagues and Peoples. It’s a great dive into the history of pandemics over the centuries. It’s not a hard read at all, very enjoyable and easy to understand with lots of nice anecdotes. Apparently the findings have held up really well over the last 50 years too.
If there was one takeaway or action point you hope people will get from your work, what would it be?
That religion and culture have deep impacts in the way we conceive of mental illness. That we still know relatively little about how mental illness develops, manifests, and is best treated. That the relationship between our minds and our bodies is exceedingly complex and there are often no easy solutions.
Thank you for your time!