Issue Highlight Vol 40 Issue 3: Contradictory Notions of Violence and Trauma in the Military

This is the second post in a series of article highlights from our new September 2016 issue, available here. In this installment, we explore Tine Molendijk, Eric-Hans Kramer, and Désirée Verweij’s article “Conflicting Notions on Violence and PTSD in the Military: Institutional and Personal Narratives of Combat-Related Illness.” To read the full article, click here.


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Molendijk, Kramer, and Verweij observe that contemporary quantitative research reports that members of the military tend to underuse mental health services, most notably for PTSD. The reports note that soldiers’ beliefs about these services may be hindering utilization: however, existing studies have not specifically identified the beliefs or cultural factors that lead to under-utilization. Through a qualitative analysis of the literature, the authors argue that existing mental health interventions carry contradictory statements about violence and PTSD that may be casting particular social and moral frames onto mental illness. These interventions thus situate PTSD within a pre-figured framework, rather than presenting PTSD and trauma in a manner that individualizes and “decontextualizes” its presentation amongst members of the military: whose personal narratives also offer a distinct perspective on the experience of PTSD. The study focuses on PTSD and its treatment namely amongst the US, UK, and Dutch contexts.

To begin, the authors state that the diagnostic category of PTSD per the DSMV (and its implementation in practice) itself imposes a particular cadence on the disorder, stipulating that it emerges in response to an isolated or otherwise triggering single event, rather than to a diffuse string of violent occurrences or social disruptions. The diagnosis also pathologizes the degree of transition between military and civilian life which, to some degree, must and does occur for all soldiers. “The current mainstream PTSD-concept, with its focus on trauma exposure and individual susceptibilities,” the authors argue, “frames PTSD as the response of an individual to an event,” rather than an individual to a series of events, or many people to a range of traumas.

Beyond the diagnostic category, the “infrastructure” surrounding PTSD and its treatment in the military also impacts the way the illness is conceived and given meaning. The authors “divided the PTSD-infrastructure into five categories: pre-enlistment screening, basic training programs, counseling during deployment and pre- and post-deployment psycho-education, post-deployment screening through a survey and a meeting, and therapy.” In the earliest stages, potential military recruits are screened for existing mental illness, while those who pass screening are then subjected to psychological conditioning in their training intended to bolster soldiers’ emotional and psychological fortitude against combat scenarios. Throughout and after deployment, soldiers are also counseled and receive mental health guidance intended to ease adjustments between the “battlemind” state and the “civilian” mindset. These numerous institutional mechanisms indicate that the military infrastructure situates PTSD as a dysfunctional “deviation” from the ‘functional’ “battlemind,” rather than a natural response to trauma. Thus PTSD is cast as the failure of an individual to integrate and compartmentalize a traumatic event within the mental frameworks for coping that they have already been given, even though the military has already anticipated trauma and attempted to prepare soldiers in the event of psychological disturbance.

From the personal perspective of soldiers, however, the experience of PTSD is presented in a different but equally conflicting light. The authors note that soldiers are expected to psychologically identify and process traumatic events, but are also instructed to resist considering the emotional impact of these events: thereby cognitively preventing them from narrating, contextualizing, and giving meaning to traumatic instances. Furthermore, as violence is a routine aspect of military labor, responses to it are not necessarily “exceptional.” Entire squads may experience the same trauma, although they may not all be later diagnosed with PTSD, or share the belief that mental health care is appropriate for overcoming psychological trauma. Indeed, in military culture, many soldiers may not perceive violence as a trigger, but– as noted earlier– an expected and normal part of daily work. Additionally, acts of military violence may not be perceived as traumatic if they are viewed as necessary, just, or appropriate. Amongst soldiers themselves, PTSD therefore carries conflicting and multiple meanings. The authors summarize that “soldiers have learned that exposure to violence can harm a soldier, and that PTSD-like symptoms are not unusual. However, at the same time, they have learned that violence and stress are inherent to a soldier’s job, and that ‘good soldiers’ should be able to deal with it.” Soldiers who struggle with trauma, therefore, are given resources to address it, but may suspect that it is normal and does not (or should not) require medical intervention. Thus both the institution and the nature of the profession generate conflicting messages about the etiology and treatment of PTSD amongst soldiers.

To some degree, the authors remark, the transition from active deployment (and its related trauma or exposure to violence) to civilian life contains unavoidable contradictions, as the psychological mindset needed for combat versus the mindset for civilian life differ greatly, and the adjustments between them may be difficult. However, the contradictions within the institutional narrative of PTSD– that it is dysfunctional, yet expected, and provided with interventions–may be preventing soldiers from understanding whether or not their response to violence requires treatment, or if seeking help is a stigmatized act. Ultimately, the authors conclude, “the [existing institutional] PTSD-narrative can give soldiers the feeling that important elements of their problems are not taken into account, or that they are translated into an individual problem. If so, soldiers then hear no narrative through which they can understand and articulate their experiences and potential inner struggles about the meaning of these experiences.” The authors’ findings therefore indicate that there are significant and potentially problematic conceptual rifts in the understanding of PTSD between soldiers and institutions, and amongst soldiers acting within the military infrastructure.

 

 

Issue Highlight Vol 40 Issue 3: The Mental Health Treatment Gap Across Africa

In the coming weeks, we will be presenting special highlights of our latest installment of the journal, released September 2016 (accessible here.) This week, we explore Sara Cooper’s article “‘How I Floated on Gentle Webs of Being’: Psychiatrists’ Stories About the Mental Health Treatment Gap in Africa.” The full article is available here.


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As Cooper notes in the outset of her article, clinicians and global health workers have identified a “gap” in available mental health services in Africa, and developed programs targeted at the resolution of lacking mental health services across the continent. Despite widespread attempts to research and resolve this gap, however, there remains concern about the problems that arise when a global, top-down approach to mental health services is applied in African contexts. Responding to this concern, Cooper sought out views on the treatment gap at the local level, specifically amongst African psychiatrists. Cooper gathered and analyzed narratives from twenty-eight psychiatrists from South Africa, Uganda, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. She found that while a biomedical, rationalistic narrative about the gap was certainly present, another, more phenomenological understanding of the “gap” emerged from the narratives of three of her participants, which urged a more sensitive approach to the implementation of mental health services in Africa.

Cooper first found that some of the psychiatrists in her study repeatedly turned to a dominant (or master) biomedical narrative to explain why the mental health treatment gap existed in their respective countries. In other words, the psychiatrists relied on a rationalistic, deductive, and material explanation that accounted for the mental health treatment landscapes across Africa. For instance, many of the psychiatrists argued that the lack of physical resources– hospitals, beds, clinicians to staff treatment centers– led patients to seek out non-biomedical interventions like prayer-based or spiritual-based care. The participants agreed that if there were enough services available, patients would not turn to complementary or religious forms of treatment. In their perspective, alternative forms of care were a substitute for biomedicine, rather than a legitimate venue for patients to seek mental health assistance in the absence of (or even alongside) biomedical resources.

Indeed, the act of seeking out these alternative treatments was viewed by the psychiatrists as a rational response: one borne out of the creativity of patients who weighed available options and selected the most appropriate, present service (rather than a complex response to a pluralism of local medical systems.) Conversely, however, the psychiatrists also argued that patients underutilized health services and lacked “mental health literacy,” or the knowledge needed to preface the choice to seek out biomedical assistance. Through these examples, and others, Cooper observes that this sub-cohort of psychiatrists tended to return to a rationalistic understanding of medical treatment that may not always have been sensitive to other means of medical decision-making or to the scope of biomedical interventions.

Yet Cooper also discovered that there were notable fractures in the biomedical “master narrative,” wherein psychiatrists’ narratives reveal concerns about the role of biomedical mental health services in addressing treatment gaps. Three psychiatrists admitted that biomedicine might not necessarily address the full scope of a patient’s mental illness or health concerns in the broader context of their lives or personal needs. For example, these three participants noted that the psychiatrist might have to explain that available treatments could potentially fail to fully resolve a patient’s complaint, or that they might have to accept that a patient’s past traumas, or troubling social circumstances, were beyond that which the psychiatrist could ameliorate through medical means. Here, the treatment “gap” is conceptual: the ideological place where a patient’s hopes, experiences, and expectations about their care may not be perfectly matched to the psychiatrist’s available treatments and medical diagnoses.

In this sub-cohort, one psychiatrist remarked that the “paternalistic” method of biomedical treatment could be unproductive, as the clinician may not be able to fully mend the patient’s health due to the social, personal, and individual complexities of the patient case. Another psychiatrist recounted a patient’s case in detail, noting that while he believed this person suffered from delusions, it was his responsibility to help the patient by trying to understand his view of reality, suffering, and personal struggle. Yet another psychiatrist recounted equally challenging cases, where they recognized that patients often were not satisfied with simply a cleanly-defined diagnosis or treatment plan, but required a more robust means of reordering and improving their lives with the psychiatrist’s guidance.

Cooper states that “for these psychiatrists, in taking people’s experiences and meanings seriously, on their own terms, one comes to appreciate that their understandings and behaviours are deeply complex and varied, affected by all sorts of social, cultural and emotional realities and rationalities.” Though the master narrative of biomedical rationality remained prominent, these alternative narratives were sensitive to the lived experiences and individual realities of the patient. They also explored the treatment gap, but viewed the “gap” as the product of complex interactions between psychiatrists and their patients. For the latter three participants, the “gap” was caused not by a lack of resources or knowledge, but by the friction between practitioners’ and patients’ expectations about the treatment of mental illness, and a mismatch between practitioners’ medical skills and the self-professed needs and understandings of patients. “According to the three psychiatrists in this [part of the] study,” Cooper concludes, “increasing the availability of services necessitates first and foremost rethinking the nature of the kinds of services that are expanded, and the associated epistemologies upon which these are based.”

Blog Archive: ALS, Quality of Life, and Feeding Tubes

This week, we revisit an article highlight that originally debuted here in May 2016. The highlight explores Pols and Limburg’s qualitative research on the role and meaning of feeding tubes in the lives of people with ALS. The article was officially released in our latest September 2016 issue of the journal, and is accessible in full here.


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Pol and Limburg begin by suggesting that while “quality of life” has been transformed into a measurement used widely in health research, it is difficult to operationalize when considering the daily, lived experiences of patients. Rather than approaching quality of life as a measure of attainment or “outcome,” the authors instead choose to reframe it as a continual process: one that is negotiated by individual patients differently. To examine what quality of life entails in a qualitative sense, the authors interviewed a population of people with ALS in the Netherlands with feeding tubes, or ALS patients considering one.

The literature on feeding tubes, the authors note, present many perspectives on the relationships between quality of life and eating. Some sources argue that feeding tubes deprive individuals of the important social aspects of eating, while others note that feeding tubes can unburden patients for whom swallowing and the physical actions of eating are difficult, uncomfortable, or impossible.

Patients and their families interviewed by the researchers, on the other hand, demonstrate such ambiguity towards feeding tubes contextually, depending on the stage of their feeding tube transition. For many, the initial decision to have a feeding tube placed in their bodies was an upsetting signal of bodily deterioration. The procedure itself, though technically minimally invasive, was also viewed with trepidation by patients. They worried about the hospital stay, and whether or not their body would be strong enough to adapt to the tube quickly. Pols and Limburg found that for those who had undergone the procedure, “there was a remarkable consensus among patients in their evaluation of tube placement, with the main variations mentioning just how terrible it had been.” The authors later note that some patients continued to view the feeding tube negatively after it was placed, envisioning it as an unnatural, upsetting addition to their bodies. Others described it as a “necessity” that came with quality of life benefits, although it was not pleasant to have attached to their bodies.

However, for many patients who had feeding tubes already implanted at the time of the study, the response could be notably positive. These participants noted that the devices restored their health and function, and lessened distressing symptoms like choking and an inability to swallow. For one patient, the feeding tube ensured that she received the appropriate calories, such that any food she decided to eat normally could be at her discretion. Other patients who cared less about eating a range of foods appreciated that the feeding tube rid them of the need to worry about what could be easily consumed.

The authors conclude that “the feeding tube can best be understood not as an intervention that causes ‘impacts on quality of life’, but as a technology or prosthesis that may bring different qualities and appreciations that may shift over time.” They add that the feeding tube acts as an intervention that re-orders daily life for patients coping with the a ‘new normal’ of chronic illness: rather than serving to balance “good” and “bad” qualities, as outlined in the disability paradox. Lastly, they remind readers that instrumentalizing “quality of life” risks losing these facets of illness experience. This term is deeply contextual, and responsive to the needs, expectations, and hopes of each patient undergoing treatments or coping with chronic conditions.

Medical Humanities as an Intersection: Fostering Cross-Disciplinary Intellectual Spaces, A Commentary

This week, we are featuring a commentary on the medical humanities, which first appeared this week here on The Daily Dose blog. This piece explores the nature of interdisciplinary research on the social, cultural, and experiential dimensions of medicine. It also spotlights the new Medicine, Society & Culture initiatives at Case Western Reserve University.


 

When I set out to write this commentary, I first intended on penning a blog piece about my own definition of the medical humanities as someone trained in both the humanities and the social sciences. Having come to medical anthropology from a past life in literary studies, my work has straddled the fissure between humanities and qualitative social sciences. I have presented work both on the history and theatrical presence of anatomical learning in the English Renaissance, and on my ethnographic research with medical students in the gross anatomy lab today. Sometimes, my work is focused solely on the present; in other instances, I turn to the historical past to inform my work as a scholar of contemporary medical training. My vision of the medical humanities is one that arrives from both within and beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries.

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My approach, however, is but one. I recognize that the medical humanities do not offer a single or unified outlook on human health, illness, and medical practice. In fact, the medical humanities are populated by historians and artists, poets and literary scholars, philosophers and social scientists. Our individual professional identities may be firm—I identify now as an ethnographer and anthropologist, not a literary scholar—but the social, cultural, historical, experiential, and existential study of medicine is simply too complex to be dominated by a single field. The medical humanities (and its ally, social medicine), welcomes perspectives on the humanistic study of medicine informed by our varied native disciplines. More than a single field, the medical humanities often serve as a crossroads: an intellectual intersection (physical, virtual, or social) at which scholars across fields gather in dialogue, whether they identify with a single specialty or as interdisciplinary scholars. For this reason, and regardless of disciplinary allegiances, we can all benefit from the medical humanities as a site of discussion that welcomes myriad voices. Diverse perspectives encourage us to analyze human health and medical problems from numerous angles. As we all carry with us our own analytical methods and theories to this junction, so too do we leave these dialogues having ourselves learned and gained the critical perspectives of our peers. This sharpens our focus anew on social, cultural, and medical problems for which one discipline lacks all answers.

The value of the medical humanities is that they enable all of us to see medical and social problems through multiple lenses. If we cannot fully grasp a complex medical problem through ethnography alone, we turn to historical approaches to complete our understanding of the issue at hand. If individual illness narratives beg to be woven together through other data, we look to sociology and economics to conceptualize the underlying health inequities faced by diverse populations, amongst other socio-medical problems. And, further, when we strive to understand how medical science is confronting illness and suffering today, we turn to nurses, social workers, therapists, physicians, and other health professionals whose day-to-day interaction with patients is deeply informative for our own research. Indeed, clinicians also benefit from our work: the humanities have been widely integrated into coursework for physicians in the United Kingdom[1] and the United States[2]. While obstacles remain in the creation and implementation of medical humanities curricula for future medical practitioners[3], this coursework has widened the intellectual space in which medical humanists exchange ideas with multiple audiences.

Whether medical humanities programs are physically housed within humanities departments, or whether they are exported into numerous health education venues, they remain a space for invaluable cross-disciplinary conversation. I have been fortunate to serve as the administrative coordinator of a medical humanities and social medicine collaborative that has overcome departmental boundaries in creating a new space for scholarly dialogue. This new university-wide initiative in medical humanities and social medicine (MHSM) is anchored by a Bioethics MA degree track entitled Medicine, Society and Culture at Case Western Reserve University. Though the degree program is housed in the School of Medicine, our MHSM (Medical Humanities and Social Medicine) advisory committee (which oversees university-wide activities in medical humanities[4]) includes historians, philosophers, literary scholars, social scientists, rhetoricians, and many others. Across the university, we facilitate lectures, administer competitive conference and research grants for students, and support faculty scholarship and teaching innovation. In the region, we collaborate with neighboring institutions to spearhead events that bring together scholars in all disciplines to discuss common themes in the social and contextual study of medicine, illness, and human health. In addition, we look forward to welcoming our first entering class of graduate students in the Medicine, Society, and Culture track in the Bioethics graduate program this Fall 2016. These students will complete clinical rotations, bioethics coursework, and multidisciplinary training in medical humanities and social medicine.

In sum, the Medicine, Society and Culture initiative has become another significant intersection at which scholars—both practicing academics and new graduate students alike—are able to trade theories, exchange methods, and discuss contemporary intellectual issues with fellow medical humanists and social scientists. Thus, our program seeks to both produce new scholars who approach illness and medicine as inherently multi-faceted human experiences, and to facilitate dialogues with current scholars within various departments who strive to complicate their own understandings of health and the human condition.

Beyond university programming, however, there are many ways that all medical humanities scholars strive—and should continue—to reach across departments and disciplines to share our methods, theories, approaches, and reflections on medicine with one another. This blog is one such space that beautifully forges virtual connections across academic audiences with a shared interest in health, illness, and medical practice. My own field, medical anthropology, by its nature requires researchers to inform their claims through many kinds of data that necessitate several forms of analysis: all which dovetail approaches in other fields. So too did my previous training in literary studies require me to be conversant in historical methods, in close reading techniques, and in the same inductive reasoning skills that I now apply to my ethnographic work. No discipline is an intellectual island: and if there is a universal value of the medical humanities, it is that it has made junctures out of disparate disciplines. It is at once clinical, scientific, and humanistic.


 

About the Author: Julia Knopes is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Case Western Reserve University, and serves as the administrative coordinator for the newly-launched MA Track in Medicine, Society & Culture in the CWRU Department of Bioethics. Julia’s research examines the socio-material basis of professional role development amongst American medical students. She holds an MA in Humanities from the University of Chicago and a BA in English from Washington & Jefferson College. You can learn more about Julia’s work and current research here.

References

[1] Macnaughton, Jane. (2000). “The humanities in medical education: context, outcomes and structures.” Journal of Medical Ethics: Medical Humanities 26: 23-30.

[2] Hunter, KM; Charon, Rita; Coulehan, Jack. (1995). “The study of literature in medical education.” Academic Medicine 70(9): 787-794.

[3] Shapiro, Johanna; Coulehan, Jack; Wear, Delese; Montello, Martha. (2009). “Medical Humanities and Their Discontents: Definitions, Critiques, and Implications.” Academic Medicine 84(2): 192-198.

[4] Information on members of the CWRU MHSM advisory committee can be found here: http://case.edu/medicine/msc/about/advisory-committee/

Fall 2016: Blog Update

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The Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry blog will return to regular, once-weekly updates next week on Wednesday, following our reduced summer upload schedule. In the meantime, our readers can access articles and illness narratives from our new September 2016 issue here.

In the coming weeks, check back on the blog for special article highlights from the new issue, as well as “From the Archive” features, news posts, book release updates, commentaries, and other entries at the blog. As always, we continue to welcome submissions of guest commentaries on the cultural, social, and humanistic study of health and medicine. Please contact our social media editor, Julia Knopes (jcb193@case.edu) for more information.

Best wishes from the CMP Editorial Team!

Book Release: Eigen’s “Mad-Doctors in the Dock”

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Image via JHU Press website

To be published this November 2016 from Johns Hopkins University Press is Joel Peter Eigen’s Mad-Doctors in the Dock: Defending the Diagnosis, 1760-1913. This medical history examines the foundations and early development of the criminal insanity defense in England. Drawing on testimony and documents from almost 1,000 trials, this text examines how physicians, surgeons, and other health care providers connected diagnosis with legal culpability.  The text promises to carefully assess the dynamic relationships between criminal justice, mental health, medicine, and the emergent disciplines of forensic psychology and psychiatry. This book will be of equal interest to anthropologists of medicine and law, as well as psychological anthropologists, historians and sociologists of medicine, and cross-disciplinary scholars in the medical humanities.

To learn more about this upcoming release, click here.

About the Author: Joel Peter Eigen serves as the Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology at Franklin and Marshall College as well as Principal Fellow (Honorary) at the University of Melbourne. This text is the third in a series that Eigen has published on the history of the insanity defense. The first book, Witnessing Insanity: Madness and Mad-Doctors in the English Court, was released in 1995 by Yale University Press and is available here. The second book, Unconscious Crime: Mental Absence and Criminal Responsibility in Victorian London, was published in 2003 by Johns Hopkins University Press. It can be purchased here.

Issue Highlight Vol 40 Issue 2: Global Health Diplomacy in Ethiopia

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Across the past few weeks, we have been spotlighting new articles from our June 2016 issue, which you can access in full here. The theme of this special issue is The Clinic in Crisis: Medicine and Politics in the Context of Social Upheaval. This week, we visit Lauren Carruth’s article “Peace in the Clinic: Rethinking ‘Global Health Diplomacy’ in the Somali Region of Ethiopia.” You can read the full article at this link.


In this article, Carruth argues that the politics of global health manifest not only at the scale of “interstate” interactions between governments, NGOs, and international assemblies, but at the local and interpersonal levels between individuals who are giving, receiving, and managing clinical care in “politically insecure” places. Through ethnographic research on two health programs in the Somali region of Ethiopia, the author argues that medical care provision can alternatively strain and strengthen political relationships between people across ethnic and social boundaries.

For instance, Somali people in Ethiopia often refused to seek medical services from the local clinic, Aysha Health Center. Somali patients complained that the Habesha (a native Ethiopian group) nurses were insensitive and uninterested in treating their health concerns. Many Somali informants offered up the same story as evidence: three mothers went to the clinic, and their three children had different ailments. Yet the Habesha nurses did not examine the children, and offered the same drugs to each of the mothers without diagnosing each patient. Somali patients also had difficulty securing a translator who could assist them in conversations with clinicians, who spoke Amharic. The Habesha clinic staff countered that the Somali patients were adverse to biomedical care, instead trusting native folk healers over the clinicians. They added that Somali patients would not adhere to the medication regimens or treatment plans that they recommended. In this case, the friction between Habesha caregivers and Somali patients intensified long-standing ethnic and political tensions at the local scale.

Carruth presents another case, however, where medical aid eases inter-ethnic relationships and ameliorate social rifts between opposing groups. She describes a mobile UNICEF clinic staffed by two Somali clinicians of the Ogaden clan operating in Ethiopia. Though these Somali clinicians were caring for fellow Somali patients, the patients descended from a less politically powerful line which did not have the dominant social standing of the Ogaden: a clan with significant regional power in Ethiopia. Though the patients were of opposing clans, such as the Issa, the two clinicians listened intently to the patients’ complaints, recalled their family lines when they returned for further treatment, and even offered resources like supplementary nutrition to ailing patients despite UNICEF limitations on what types of patients could receive these rations. The patients adored the mobile clinic staff, and the clinicians became integrated into the marginalized communities they served. This example, Carruth notes, highlights the potential for medical aid to facilitate positive and deeply personal relationships between factions in regions that have otherwise experienced significant social unrest.

Carruth concludes that in order to successfully deliver medical aid to places encountering social upheaval or unrest, it is critical to unite oppositional groups within clinical spaces themselves. Providing medical resources and building clinics alone, she notes, fails to address the need to facilitate positive relationships between individuals mired in conflict. Instead, to ease political and social tensions, Carruth posits that clinics and similar treatment centers can serve as sites of caring, communal exchange between otherwise opposed social groups.

Issue Highlight Vol 40 Issue 2: Reproductive Experiences Amongst Haredi Jewish Women

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Over the next few blog updates, we will be spotlighting new articles from our June 2016 issue, which you can access in full here. The theme of this special issue is The Clinic in Crisis: Medicine and Politics in the Context of Social Upheaval. In addition to articles that address the topics of societal unrest, political change, and human health, this installment also turns to how people navigate change and decision-making within the contexts of their own lives. Specifically, one article questions whether individual autonomy over medical decisions is a characteristic of medical care across cultural contexts. In Teman, Ivry, and Goren’s article “Obligatory Effort [Hishtadlut] as an Explanatory Model: A Critique of Reproductive Choice and Control,” we learn that the notion of reproductive choice and control does not cleanly map onto the procreative experiences of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) women. To access this article in full, click here.


Reproductive technologies have expanded the range of procreative choices a woman and members of her family confront: should birth control be used to limit the number of children she wishes to have? Should assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) be used to facilitate conception, or should a woman abort a fetus that has tested positive for a developmental or congenital ailment? The authors of this article suggest that in these discussions, another question has emerged. Are these decisions truly reflective of individual choice, or do individual mothers and members of their community perceive the reproductive course as one over which no person has ultimate control?

Amongst Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) women in both the United States and Israel, the authors observed another way that individuals framed their reproductive experiences. Rather than describing their procreative choices as a form of individual control over one’s life course, the Haredi women referenced hishtadlut, or obligatory effort: the notion that they were obliged to God to try to become pregnant, but not responsible for the outcome if they were unable to do so. In hishtadlut, women have “room for effort” in that they may flexibly interpret and enact what constitutes a serious attempt to become pregnant or maintain a healthy pregnancy per their religious duty to God to have children. In this explanatory framing, women recognize that they must consciously make choices that would enable God to enact a divine plan for them: however, they are not accountable for the outcome if, having invested the “effort,” God’s plan does not come to fruition or leads to the birth of a child with a developmental disability or congenital condition.

The concept of hishtadlut extended to the use of various reproductive technologies. For instance, there are many concerns about hereditary genetic illnesses like Tay-Sachs disease within the Haredi community. To ameliorate this issue, blood samples from young Haredi men and women enrolled in high school are collected and catalogued into an anonymous database. If two families are arranging a marriage between a son and a daughter, they are able to consult the database to confirm whether or not both individuals are genetic carriers of an illness. This prevents unions between two carriers who would have a greater likelihood of having a child with a genetic illness; thus a genetic carrier would be paired with a non-carrier spouse. Most women interviewed for the article agreed that this technological system facilitated the will of God, as it reduced the chance that a couple would face the difficulty of raising a disabled or an ill child. Here the technology is seen as a “blessing” from God, as it allows families and couples to avoid “heartbreak,” while bolstering a couple’s ability to have healthy children per God’s divine plan.

In other instances, technology is viewed as irrelevant out of the hishtadlut principle. For example, the Haredi women perceived genetic testing for fetal developmental or other congenital illnesses as having little purpose. In Jewish law, abortions beyond 40 days after conception are prohibited, and all fetal diagnostic testing occurs after this point in a woman’s pregnancy. Thus, the women held that the test was inconsequential, as God’s will for them and their fetus had already been ordained. If a baby was born with a disability, this was part of their fate as decided by God. Here “choice” is viewed as God’s choice for the mother and baby, rather than the mother’s own control over whether or not to give birth to a child with potential developmental or congenital conditions.

As Teman, Ivry, and Goren’s research illustrates, “choice” and “control” do not necessarily apply to the reproductive experiences of women and their families across cultures. Indeed, in a deeply religious community such as the Haredi Jews, “choice” is attributed to God while individual reproductive decision-making is cast as a means to allow God to work through individuals to enact divine will. Haredi women did not describe themselves as accountable for becoming pregnant (or having a healthy child), but they did feel obligated to use technologies and consciously make reproductive decisions or avoid certain interventions. These actions, they held, would enable God to direct their journey to motherhood and to fulfill their purpose as parents.

 

Issue Highlight Vol 40 Issue 2: Hospitals as Sites of Conflict in Pakistan

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In the coming blog posts, we will be highlighting new articles from our June 2016 issue, which you can access in full here. The theme of this special issue is The Clinic in Crisis: Medicine and Politics in the Context of Social Upheaval. This week, we will overview Emma Varley’s article “Abandonments, Solidarities and Logics of Care: Hospitals as Sites of Sectarian Conflict in Gilgit-Baltistan.” Read the full article here.


As our past blog highlights have suggested, the clinical space can both act as a site of political protest and serve to facilitate political unity. Varley’s article expands upon these themes by arguing that the clinic can also become a microcosm of inter-group tensions, wherein the hospital itself relays a picture of broader social conflict. Through her analysis of a crisis in a Pakistani hospital, Varley ethnographically demonstrates how Sunni-Shia conflicts manifest in the clinic, and how these tensions are navigated by health professionals employed there.

Varley recounts a shooting and raid which occurred at a hospital in Gilgit-Baltistan in January 2005. Shia gunmen had entered the regional hospital to hunt down Sunni male patients, aiming to retaliate after the assassination of a Shia leader killed by Sunnis. One women’s health ward, operated by nurses of the neutral Ismaili group, was left untouched after the nurses hid Sunni male patients. The nurses protected the men by insisting to the gunmen that there would be no male patients on a female ward: drawing both upon their social role as neutral Ismaili and their gendered role as caregivers of women, who were seen as uninvolved in the conflict at hand. Meanwhile, in a surgical theatre, physicians pretended as if the assassinated Shia leader on their operating table was still alive: hoping to placate the gunmen who threatened them until police or military forces could arrive to dispel the violence. Orderlies and other guards on the wards had, in some cases, fled: leaving clinical staff to defend or otherwise conceal the Sunni patients, and in other cases, fellow Sunni providers.

In reflecting on this incident, Varley notes that the hospital became an example of an “abandoned” space, one in which the necessary governmental protections and securities were not in place to ensure the safety of all patients and clinicians. The onus of protecting patients fell upon the clinicians who staffed the hospital: illustrating both the selflessness of individuals in assisting one another across oppositional group divides, and the potential for hospitals to become sites of medical and political refuge. This increased the trust between Shia providers and their Sunni colleagues in medicine. Conversely, the incident intensified professional divisions between Shia and Sunni providers, as Sunni clinicians later departed the larger regional hospital and took up employment in new Sunni health centers where they felt less at risk.

Though Varley reminds us that conflict is “corrosive” within medical professional relationships, it may also enable “renewed” feelings of trust between caregivers of opposing groups when political unrest unites them under a common aim. In sum, the hospital may serve a site of caregiving exchanges that expand beyond the bounds of medical encounters, as it becomes a sites of political action and negotiation between social groups.

Conference Feature: “Other Psychotherapies”

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This week on the blog, we are highlighting an upcoming conference on global psychotherapies across geography and time. This feature was written by our CMP social media intern Sonya Petrakovitz, PhD student in anthropology at Case Western Reserve University.


“Other Psychotherapies – across time, space, and culture”

University of Glasgow

Monday, April 3, 2017 – Tuesday, April 4, 2017

This conference brings contemporary forms of Western knowledge about mental health and well-being into dialogue with psychotherapeutic approaches from ‘other’ geographically, historically, or otherwise ‘distant’ cultures. Specifically, presentations will address ancient and medieval approaches to psychotherapy and how those techniques have become incorporated into today’s approaches. The sessions will also explore the development of psychological practices over time and across changing spatialities of care practices, specifically how post-colonial and indigenous forms of healing influenced the perceived credibility of psychotherapies. They will likewise examine the therapeutic/salutogenic dimensions of subcultures.

Addressing psychotherapy in this way brings together multiple disciplines and expands our understandings of medicine, health, culture, therapies, and pedagogies. The themes of the conference would be of interest to historians, physicians, literary scholars, mental health practitioners, anthropologists, and anyone interested in learning about different perspectives on psychotherapies within a broader global context.

For interested applicants, visit the Call for Papers page at http://otherpsychs.academicblogs.co.uk/. The Conference Committee invites abstracts of up to 300 words for 20-minute presentations, to be submitted by no later than August 31, 2016. Abstracts should be emailed to  arts-otherpsychs@glasgow.ac.uk along with a short biography of 100 words or less.