With each new issue of Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry, we feature a series of blog posts that highlight the latest publications in our journal. This September’s issue includes articles that address psychiatric conditions and the experiences of people with mental illness across numerous cultures. Readers may access the full issue at Springer here: http://link.springer.com/journal/11013/39/3/page/1. In today’s issue highlight, we will examine a study on indigenous nosologies of mental illness amongst the Maya of Belize.
Narrative Structures of Maya Mental Disorders
Andrew R. Hatala, James B. Waldram, and Tomas Caal – Pages 449-486
To understand the compatibility of divergent medical traditions, it is first essential to describe how medical systems classify and interpret disorders in particular ways. With this aim in mind, the authors of this ethnographic study sought to develop an picture of indigenous mental illness nosology amongst the Q’eqchi’ Maya of southern Belize. They also asked how this knowledge may alternatively coexist, or compete, with biomedical concepts of suffering.
In order to learn about this indigenous medical epistemology, the authors worked with the Maya Healers’ Association, a professional, self-regulated group of twelve healers who maintain a garden of medicinal plants for research and who strive to reinvigorate traditional medical practice in Belize. Across ninety-four interviews with healers, the authors uncovered four illness categories that the participants used to describe the roots of mental illnesses: “thinking too much,” fright, the day of birth, and spirit “attacks.”
These descriptions are sometimes cross-compatible with DSM-V nosologies, as the researchers discovered that “thinking too much” was also listed as a symptom in biomedical models of mental illness. However, unlike the DSM-V, Maya healers tended to characterize overthinking as a “genre” of illness experience rather than as a discrete symptom. Maya healers also characterize mental illnesses as existing within the heart, the mind, and the spirit: thereby expanding the implications of mental illness beyond brain physiology, the proximate explanation employed by biomedical psychiatry.
The authors conclude that it is essential to understand the similarities in the two nosologies to facilitate collaboration between indigenous and biomedical healers, but add that both groups must also be aware of the differences in classificatory schemes that they use to interpret mental illness. In this way, people with mental disorders in Belize may best receive care that accounts for all of the ways they might seek care and understand their illness across the boundaries of medical systems.