University of Washington Today: Q and A with Janelle Taylor

Yesterday we highlighted Janelle S. Taylor’s article from the latest edition of Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry entitled Engaging with Dementia: Moral Experiments in Art and Friendship, available here. In this post, we follow up with a link to a recent Question & Answer session with Taylor by Kim Eckart, posted on the University of Washington Today website. Included with the Q & A interview is a video with Taylor entitled “How friendships evolve when one person has dementia.” In the video, Taylor discusses her research and the implications of the moral challenges taken on by people who have friends with dementia. Visit the UW Today post here.

Article Highlight: Vol. 41, Issue 2, “Engaging with Dementia: Moral Experiments in Art and Friendship”

This week, we are featuring an Article Highlight written by Monica Windholtz, an Integrated Graduate Studies student in the Anthropology and Bioethics departments at Case Western Reserve University. Monica highlights Janelle S. Taylor’s article from the latest edition of Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry (Vol. 41, Iss. 2), entitled Engaging with Dementia: Moral Experiments in Art and Friendship. The article examines activities and social circumstances used to involve people with dementia in the world. Taylor depicts the steps involved in creating ‘moral experiments’ that plant patients with dementia in life. Through interviews with caregivers of people with dementia, Taylor explores the role of art and community in engaging those with dementia.


In this article, Taylor analyzes the experiences of individuals with dementia as relayed through the narratives of their caregivers. The article begins with the concept of media portrayals of dementia. Dementia is typically not represented well in the media, with stories devoid of “either subtlety or compassion” (285). In 2014, Julianne Moore received critical acclaim and an Academy Award for her role as the titular character in the film Still Alice, based on a book. The book and movie both chronicle the decline of Alice Howland, a brilliant scientist, as she suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. While her husband and two oldest children are unable to confront the changes in Alice and focus only on treatment, her daughter Lydia attempts to understand her mother and engage with Alice’s new world. The article highlights Lydia’s artistic interactions with her mother to introduce the concept of the positive impacts of art and relationships to those with dementia.

While there is currently no effective cure for dementia, caregivers attempt to guide those with dementia to live full lives. The arts have especially served as a way to engage people with dementia, using programs in “storytelling, poetry, painting, dance, theater, [and songwriting]” (287). These programs engage and enrich the lives of individuals suffering with dementia. Artistic forms of expression help to imbue the lives of dementia patients with meaning. In Seattle, such programs to connect with dementia patients have been increasing.

Taylor labels these programs as “moral experiments,” following the work of Cheryl Mattingly where experiments are created by people trying to do the right thing (289). By attempting to enrich the lives of those with dementia, artistic programs are exploring new ways to bring meaning to their daily experiences.

Through an analysis of her interviews, Taylor recounts the experiences of those who have served as caregivers for family members or friends with dementia. In one case, a woman named Janet offered to help engage her friend’s husband, who was suffering with dementia. Their interactions formed a strong friendship between Janet and the husband, enabling him to still feel a sense of community, even as a patient with dementia.

Taylor found that caregivers and friends of those with dementia often see themselves as modeling or teaching proper behaviors to the rest of society, which may exhibit apprehension or discomfort when engaging with dementia patients. Since these anxious attitudes are common, caregivers may have interventions with their social groups or instruct others in how to interact with the individual with dementia. According to Taylor, people should attempt to interact with dementia patients, as they still understand the social environment, even if the context is not clear. Thus it is important for communities and social groups to still recognize the person with dementia in social settings.

Another striking example of people coming together was with the caregivers of Jacqueline, an immigrant woman in Seattle. Jacqueline had relied on the care and help of her mother in the home for many years, but soon after her mother’s death Jacqueline developed dementia. Those that knew Jacqueline were drawn into greater involvement in her life because of her dementia, and helped with the tasks her mother had otherwise taken care of. The group even created a calendar to organize their efforts to aid her.

The Still Alice novel uses the motif of a butterfly to reflect the theme of transformation while still being the same being. As discussed by Taylor, one caregiver of a dementia patient referred to the group that sought to improve the patient’s life as their ‘cocoon.’ The article reflects on the prominent transformations that patients with dementia undergo, and how cocoons and butterflies can both serve as symbols for the moral communities that protect and engage the patients.

In conclusion, Taylor reflects how Still Alice shows that it is not only science and medicine that can improve the lives of those with dementia. Engaging dementia patients through art and the community can help to improve their lives. Finally, there is further room for anthropologists and other researchers to understand and document these other forms of support and improvement.

Article Highlight: Vol. 41, Issue 1, “Innocent or Intentional?: Interpreting Oppositional Defiant Disorder in a Preschool Mental Health Clinic”

To begin article highlights from our latest edition of Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry (Vol. 41, Iss. 1), this week we are featuring Christine El Ouardani’s Innocent or Intentional?: Interpreting Oppositional Defiant Disorder in a Preschool Mental Health Clinic. This article examines contradictions clinicians face when attempting to identify and interpret “intentionality” in young children with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). El Ouardani argues that conceptualizing intentionality as a developmental, interpersonal process may help to make sense of the multiple discourses and practices clinicians use to try to reconcile the contradictions inherent in diagnosing ODD.

El Ouardani begins by introducing “Carla,” a three-year-old who arrived for evaluation and clinical diagnostic determination at the Preschool Behavior Disorder Clinic (PBDC). At first Carla appears as any typical preschooler, energetic and affectionate, but the care team quickly learns she would frequently have violent outbursts and tantrums, lashing out at her family members, other children, or even nearby animals. This type of aggressive, disruptive behavior represents the main reason for the referral of preschoolers to mental health clinics. Early intervention into and treatment of such behaviors is thus of great interest to researchers and clinicians in the field of child mental health care in hopes of helping the young children adapt and cope with life more effectively and prevent the development of later, more destructive behaviors.

El Ouardani discusses that many of the children seen in the PBDC were given a diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV (DSM-IV) as “a recurrent pattern of negativistic, defiant, disobedient, and hostile behavior toward authority figures that persists for at least 6 months” that impairs a child’s social and/or academic functioning. Yet with very young, preschool-aged children, the diagnosis is controversial. Many children displaying aggressive behavior come from chaotic or otherwise problematic social environments in which this kind of behavior is a reasonable reaction. El Ouardani states that clinicians “must reconcile their characterization of disruptive behavior as a matter of ‘self,’ with the social environments that seem to be producing this kind of behavior.” El Ouardani also draws attention to the values and assumptions of current treatment models and diagnostic procedures. These modules are often based on white, middle-class norms of a “proper” family, moral assumptions of how parents should discipline their children, and the assumed role of a child in social institutions. Many patients at the PBDC did not fall into those characterizations; the reality of their lives are much different.

Moving to a discussion of agency and intentionality, El Ouardani then examines the biomedical, disease model of mental illness, which attempts to remove the blame for the illness from the individual. “Ideologically, then, those afflicted with mental disorders bear no responsibility for the behaviors that directly result from their disorders,” El Ouardani writes, since the biological processes of mental illness are taken out of the patient’s control. Thus, ODD as a category defined by “intentional” defiance conflicts with the disease model of mental illness. “A central concern of psychiatric therapeutics is to motivate and use the intentionality of a patient to regain control over the self.” Yet the idea that preschool-aged children are fully capable of acting with this type of intention, and possess the capacity to do so, is disputed. Therefore clinicians diagnosing a young child with ODD are forced to face the disparities between what is out of the child’s control, and what is the “will” of the child.

While discussing the diagnostic criteria for ODD as described in the DSM-IV, El Ouardani emphasizes the criteria for an ODD diagnosis requires the child to be aware of his or her own behavior and is purposely trying to upset or defy the person with whom they are interacting. From this criteria, ODD-labeled children are manipulative and spiteful, qualities that require a degree of intentional malice and deception. These characteristics are not thought to be present in other kinds of childhood mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety, neurodevelopmental disorders, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Clinicians also attribute ODD children with controlling their behavior to influence “weaker” adults, depicting these children as culpable and intentional in their attempts to “confuse and subvert the efforts of their caretakers who are trying to control their behavior.”

El Ouardani discuses that determining intentionality is a complex process, especially because of a child’s limited verbal capacity for expressing internal states. “In order to identify intentional defiance and diagnose ODD, clinicians had to delineate authentic displays of emotion from those that are inauthentic and manipulative.” El Ouardani explains that nuanced, intersubjective exchanges between the children and the clinicians are not captured within the DSM-IV diagnosis. Clinicians often feel frustrated when they perceive a child is trying to manipulate them. This can be compared to clinicians stating “that they feel bad for children with depressive symptoms. They theorized that disruptive behavior in depressed children is a way to cope with internal pain.” This difference means the clinicians feel less personally attacked by children without the ODD diagnosis, becoming less frustrated. Further, by diagnosing a child with multiple disorders the clinicians can discursively split the child’s “self” into different intentional and non-intentional parts. However, this leads to ODD being categorized as a feature of the individual’s character, who that child is as an individual, rather than as a biological disease.

Explanations for why a particular child’s behavior were not always attended to within the PBDC. “Clinicians tended to rely upon the widely accepted idea that behavior and psychopathology is a result of interactions between biological temperament and the social environment. According to this model of developmental psychopathology, innate temperament interacts with problematic interpersonal relationships and chaotic household environments, causing the child to react to these negative circumstances with disruptive behavior.” Yet this strategy still leaves ambiguities over etiology and treatment.

El Ouardani concludes her article with a discussion of the treatment modality. Clinicians regularly spend the majority of the treatment focused on teaching caretakers how to more effectively discipline and relate to the children. The clinicians primarily focus on a lack of consistency in discipline and structure in both interactions and routines, thus, if the caretakers correctly implement strategic routines, the child will then change their behavior over time. “However, clinicians also informally acknowledged these techniques, which took time and energy that many of the caretakers coming from stressful, low-income, single-caretaker families did not necessarily have.”


Dr. Christine El Ouardani is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Development at California State University, Long Beach. She is a cultural, medical, and psychological anthropologist who focuses on the anthropology of childhood and lifecourse in Morocco and in North America. El Ouardani’s current book project, Discipline and Development: Negotiating Childhood, Authority, and Violence in Rural Morocco, examines the everyday lives of children and youth in a Moroccan village as they move through their families, classrooms, and medical clinics. She analyzes disciplinary interactions between children and caretakers in their extended families and local schools that were often both violent and playful, demonstrating how local conceptions of authority, care, pain, and violence are constructed and enacted in everyday life at different points throughout childhood, and in different institutions.  El Ouardani shows how examining the nuances of child socialization practices over time and children’s roles in family and community life provides a sharp lens through which to consider larger-scale political, economic, and social change, in this case, contested norms of authority and violence in Moroccan families. For more information, visit her information page on the Department of Human Development, California State Universtity, Long Beach, available here.

 

Interview: Jonathan Sadowsky and “Electroconvulsive Therapy in America”

9781138696969This week on the blog we’re highlighting an interview with Dr. Jonathan Sadowsky about his new book Electroconvulsive Therapy in America: The Anatomy of a Medical Controversy, released November 2016 by Routledge. The book (available here) follows the American history of one of the most controversial procedures in medicine, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), and seeks to provide an explanation of why it has been so controversial, juxtaposing evidence from clinical science, personal memoir, and popular culture. ECT is widely demonized or idealized. Some detractors consider its very use to be a human rights violation, while some promoters depict it as a miracle, as the “penicillin of psychiatry.” Sadowsky contextualizes the controversies about ECT, instead of simply engaging in them, making the history of ECT more richly revealing of wider changes in culture and medicine. He shows that the application of electricity to the brain to treat illness is not only a physiological event, but also one embedded in culturally patterned beliefs about the human body, the meaning of sickness, and medical authority.

Dr. Sadowsky is the Theodore J. Castele Professor of Medical History at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH, the Associate Director of Medical Humanities and Social Medicine, the Medical Humanities and Social Medicine Initiative co-founder, the Associate Director of Medicine, Society, and Culture in the Bioethics department of the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and on the Editorial Board here at Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry. Sadowsky’s research concentrates largely on the history of medicine and psychiatry in Africa and the United States. His previous publications include Imperial Bedlam: Institutions of Madness in Colonial Southwest Nigeria (1999), available here from the University of California Press.

From all of us at CMP, we hope you enjoy our new interview category!

  1. For someone who is thinking about reading your book or about to start, is there anything you would like them to know beforehand?

I would urge everyone to understand that not everybody’s experience of a medical therapy is the same. People should be careful not to generalize from experiences they’ve had, or that loved ones have had, and assume everyone has had the same experience. People who’ve had bad experiences with ECT have criticized me for to wanting to pay attention to the voices of people who’ve had good experiences, and people who’ve have good experiences have wanted to say “oh sure that might have been true in the 1950s but everything’s fine now.” ECT has a complicated story. I have met people who have told me that this treatment saved their lives and that it did so with either none or only the most mild of adverse effects. Those people are very concerned to make sure that the therapy gets represented in positive light because there are so many negative depictions. At the same time I’ve heard from and spoken to people who say they’ve lost 20 points off their IQ after having this treatment, or who had huge gaps in memory, or that they know somebody who had killed themselves after an ECT treatment. And what I find a little bit puzzling still after all these years of working on this book, is the way people are so unwilling to see that other people might have had a different experience than their own. But it’s my feeling as a social and cultural historian that it’s my responsibility to take into account all voices. So that’s the main thing that I want people to know and think about, that experiences of this treatment do vary and people shouldn’t be too quick to generalize from their own experience.

  1. How did you become interested in ECT?

I was already several years into my career as a historian of medicine, and in particular psychiatry, and had no knowledge of the treatment other than the images that many of us have from movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Images that it was a highly frightening and abusive treatment. I was a well-trained student of medicine and psychiatry and I didn’t know anything more than that. And then I began to hear stories, both from patients and from clinicians, about it being a valuable treatment and that was just so intriguing to me. So I began to look at some of the clinical literature and it was represented in almost completely the opposite way, as this safe, effective, humane treatment that’s been unfairly stigmatized. I felt like these were two completely distinct realities. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to reconcile them, but I just wanted to understand how views of this treatment became so bifurcated. And that became the central goal of the project: to understand why it became a controversy and have such strongly held opinions on either side.

  1. What did you find most exciting to research and write about?

I worked on this project for a long time and one of the things that sustained me was that there are so many different angles to it. I was interested in learning about how it was used to treat homosexuals in 1950s, to see what the reaction of the psychoanalytic community was, and how it figured as a symbol for all that was worst in psychiatry in the antipsychiatry moment. And then there were all the debates going back to the inception of the treatment, ongoing continual debates about the extent of memory loss. Is it a serious problem? Is it a rare problem? These debates are still raging. All of this I found so intriguing. The history of ECT is also replete with ironies. Such as the irony that it was developed initially as a treatment for schizophrenia based on a hypothesis that schizophrenia has an inverse relationship with epilepsy. That hypothesis is no longer even believed in, and schizophrenia is not the main indication anymore, and yet it’s effective. That’s so weird and so seemly random! Another irony is that this treatment which become an icon for frightening medical treatment, and became almost like people’s haunting nightmare of how medicine could abuse you if you came into its clutches, was initially developed as a way to try to create a safer, less frightening treatment than chemical convulsive therapy. So it’s these layers of irony that I just found so interesting and kept me intrigued in the book.

  1. Did you come across anything unexpected?

Yes, I did come across things that were unexpected. I found the gender politics to be very elusive. I found very little evidence for the idea that women were given ECT for simply protesting against their social role as housewives, which was promoted in another book on ECT. But it does appear likely that over the course of the treatment’s history more women have gotten it than men, and there is likely a gender politics to this. Minimally it may mean simply that more women are getting diagnosed with depression, and that’s the main indication. And we know that. The diagnosis of depression has predominated among women. There is a darker possibility, which is that women’s cognitive abilities haven’t been as valued, and so doctors have been more willing to use a treatment that might damage cognitive abilities on women than they were on men. I didn’t see any proof for that. But I think there were suggestive circumstances that might indicate that that played a role. In many realms of medicine, and this has been really well documented by historians, anthropologists, and sociologists of medicine, women’s complaints about medical treatments are more quickly dismissed than men’s complaints. So it’s quite possible that some of the complaints about memory loss, which have persisted throughout the history of this treatment, have been taken less seriously because they were so often voiced by women. I’m not arguing that women had more memory loss than men, but if they predominated in the treatment, and there were complaints about memory loss, it is plausible to suggest that perhaps there has been too much dismissal. I didn’t have evidence such as clearly sexist language in clinical reports that would strengthen a speculation like that, but one thing I do argue in the book is that the history of ECT is filled with doctors dismissing patient complaints of adverse effects. There are a number of ECT providers now, however, who are trying to be very sensitive to these complaints about memory and cognitive deficits following the treatment, but there still exists in clinical manuals the claim that serious memory problems are extremely rare, and that rarity really hasn’t been proven. So it remains a problem. The history of ECT treatment has shown a tendency to dismiss patient complaints about adverse effects, and this has not served anyone well. If anything, the tendency to dismiss complaints has worsened the stigma attached to the treatment. It’s understandable that some clinicians might feel some defensiveness for a treatment they feel is helpful and safe, but the dismissal of complaints of adverse effects has led to embittered patients and worsened the stigma. In a recent piece in The Conversation (available here), I argued that if we wanted to spell the stigma attached to ECT, it’s going to take more than attesting to its therapeutic efficacy. It’s going to mean we have to reconcile with its full costs.

  1. Why was it important for you to try and remain neutral and not argue for or against ECT?

I’m not trying to presume objectivity. Everyone has a point of view. But I thought I could tell a more interesting story by taking a step back and making the controversy itself my study rather than becoming a disputant in the controversy. There’s some precedent for this. Didier Fassin, an anthropologist, did a book on AIDS in South Africa, When Bodies Remember (available here), in which he did the same thing; he tried to look at the structure of the controversy. He was trying to understand the medical controversy over HIV as an anthropologist, even though he did actually side more with one than the other. But I do argue in the book there are good reasons to attest to efficacy of ECT and it is a valuable part of psychiatry’s repertoire, that it has a place in medicine. But I also argue that there were good grounds for people to contest it and have fear of the treatment. I really try to resist the view, which is very common in clinical literature on ECT, that opposition to ECT is irrational. There are rational reasons for the resistance rooted in some of its historical uses, some of which were abusive, and rooted in the experiences of adverse effects. At the end of the book I lay it all out and I say exactly what I think about ECT after trying to look at it from a step back. I think it’s an invaluable part of psychiatry and could be very useful for many people. But I don’t think it should be used as a first or second resort; other things should be tried first because there are risks. I’m glad it’s there if I should ever need it, but I hope I never need it.

  1. Would ECT be perceived differently if it didn’t treat the brain but some other organ?

Probably. In our society now, more than any other organ your brain is you. It is the seed of the self in our self-conception. I would go beyond that. The side effects do occur, without making any kind of representation about how common these problems are, but at least some people do experience permanent memory losses. I used a lot of patient memoirs in the chapter on memory as my source material. And as one of the memoirists wrote: We are our pasts. You lose your memory it’s like you lose a part of yourself. I think in some ways people feel they lose a part of themselves if they lose their memories more than even if they were to lose a limb. Losing a limb is very traumatic, I don’t mean to minimize that. But in a way, you lose your leg and you say “I lost my leg.” It’s something that belongs to you, but it isn’t you in the same way that maybe you feel your memories are you. Memories are not just something that you have, they’re something that you are.

I think ECT is a treatment for the very ill and as a society we do generally accept that treatments for the very ill sometimes involve radical interventions. Chemotherapy for cancers for example. Most of us are glad we have it, and there isn’t a large anti-chemotherapy movement. My leading theory for why ECT treatment occasions this kind of resistance is because of depression’s uncertain status as illness. No one disagrees that cancer is an illness. When you have cancer you accept that you need surgery or radiation or chemotherapy. These are things that you normally wouldn’t do to your body if you were healthy and you didn’t need them. Cancer is clearly different from normal. But depression has this ambiguous status for two reasons. It is an ambiguous word in the English language because it refers both to an illness which can be extremely severe, yet it also refers to a mood that’s normal and that everybody at some point in their lives gets a little bit depressed. We might have disagreements about how long it has to go on and how severe it has to be to be considered an illness. But it becomes something different when we call it an illness. Secondly why I think depression’s status is a bit uncertain, is that there continue to be people who reject medical models for what we call mental illness altogether. Some might believe what people need is talk therapy and they shouldn’t have drugs or shock therapies or anything like that. Some might believe that they don’t need any treatment at all; they might want to de-medicalize the entire thing. For example, for something to qualify as disease, there has to be some kind of lesion, or something physical that can be identified. Since we don’t have the means to do that with depression, it should be removed from the medical realm. I argue against this view. The idea that there has to be some kind of visual marker is arbitrary. I do think what we consider an illness is a social decision. But if you look at it historically and anthropologically, the idea that things we call madness are medical problems is pretty widespread. And in some ways having to have something be visually identifiable is buying into a lot of biomedical hegemony. I just don’t see why that should be the criteria for illness. Ultimately it’s a philosophical question. Most people in our society do accept that severe depression actually constitutes an illness category, but I think these kinds of ambiguities leave people unsure whether this is something worthy of very strong medicine. ECT is strong medicine. It’s a big decision to undergo ECT and it’s the right decision for some people. It’s a decision that shouldn’t be made lightly and shouldn’t be treated like a trip to the dentist.

  1. Is there anything else you want to add?

I was really gratified by the number of anthropologists who read and used my first book on insanity in Nigeria, Imperial Bedlam (available here), and I would be thrilled if anthropologists gave this book the same attention. And I’d also like to add that Routledge says there will probably be a paperback within the next year and a half.

Issue Highlight: Vol 39 Issue 3, Maya Mental Disorders in Belize

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.


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Narrative Structures of Maya Mental Disorders

Andrew R. Hatala, James B. Waldram, and Tomas Caal – Pages 449-486

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11013-015-9436-9

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.

Guest Blog: Culture, Medicine, and Neuropsychiatry

This week, we are featuring a special guest blog post by M. Ariel Cascio, PhD. Here, she discusses neuropsychiatry in the Italian context and within the United States.

In the 21st century, anthropologists and allied scholars talk frequently of the biologization, cerebralization or neurologization of psychiatry. Many make reference to the 1990s, the “Decade of the Brain” that closed out the last century. They talk about “brain diseases” as a dominant discourse in discussions of mental illness. The 2014 Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association hosted a panel on “reflections on mind and body in the era of the ‘cerebral subject.’” In these and other ways, scholars write and talk about increasing dominance of brain discourses in discussion of psychological and psychiatric topics. This dominance has historical roots, for example in German (Kraepelinian) psychiatry, and authors in Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry and elsewhere have written about the historical context and local manifestations of this dominance of the neurological in the psy- sciences.

In this blog post I explore a situation in which neurology and psychiatry have long co-existed: the Italian field of neuropsychiatry. While the field “neuropsychiatry” is not unknown in the United States, and similar terms are used in other countries as well, I offer some comments specifically on the Italian context. The example of Italian neuropsychiatry provides one case of a particular historical relationship between neurology, psychiatry, and psychology that would be of interest to any historical or anthropological scholars of psychiatry.

The Italian medical system distinguishes between neuropsychiatry and psychiatry, neuropsichiatria infantile and psichiatria. Neuropsichiatria infantile (child neuropsychiatry), abbreviated NPI but sometimes referred to simply as neuropsichiatria (neuropsychiatry), addresses neurological, psychiatric, and developmental problems in children under age 18. Psichiatria (psychiatry) treats adults starting at age 18. As such, it is tempting to simply distinguish child and adult psychiatry. However, neuropsychiatry and psychiatry actually have distinct origins and practices. As the names imply, neuropsychiatry links neurology and psychiatry. Adult psychiatry, however, does not.

While Italian psychiatry has its roots in early 19th century organicist and biological approaches, in the 1960s a younger generation of psychiatrists, most prominently Franco Basaglia, aligned themselves with phenomenology and existential psychiatry. These psychiatrists crystallized their ideas into the ideology of Psichiatra Democratica (Democratic Psychiatry) and the initiative of “Basaglia’s Law,” the 1978 Law 180 which began Italy’s process of deinstitutionalization, generally considered to be very successful (Donnelly 1992). While childhood neuropsychiatry is indeed the counterpart to adult psychiatry, more than just the age group served differentiates these fields. If Italian psychiatry has its roots in Basaglia and the ideology of democratic psychiatry, neuropsychiatry has its roots at the turn of the 20th century, in the works of psychiatrist Sante de Sanctis, psychopedagogue Giuseppe F. Montesano, and pedagogue Maria Montessori.

In this way, neuropsychiatry’s origins bridged psychiatry and pedagogy (Bracci 2003; Migone 2014). Giovanni Bollea has been called the father of neuropsychiatry for his role in establishing the professional after World War II (Fiorani 2011; Migone 2014). Fiorani (2011) traces the use of the term neuropsychiatry (as opposed to simply child psychiatry, for example) to Bollea’s desire to honor the distinctly Italian tradition and legacy following Sante de Sanctis.

Several features distinguish psychiatry and neuropsychiatry. Migone (2014) argues that child neuropsychiatry has taken more influence from French psychoanalytic schools, whereas adult psychiatry has taken more influence from first German and then Anglo-Saxon psychiatries. Migone further explains:

Child and adolescent psychiatry in Italy is therefore characterized by a reduced use of medications (if compared to the United States), and by a diffuse use of dynamic psychotherapy, both individual and family therapy (from the mid-1970s systemic therapy spread). The attention to the family and the social environment is extremely important for understand the clinical case during the developmental years. [My translation]

Moreover, neuropsychiatry is known for being multidisciplinary and working in equipe, teams of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and so on. It incorporates psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, dynamic psychology, psychological testing, social interventions, and more (Fiorani 2011).

This extremely brief overview outlines key characteristics of Italian neuropsychiatry and the ways it is distinguished from Italian psychiatry, as well as from U.S. psychiatry. Italian neuropsychiatry provides one example of a long-standing relationship between neurology, psychiatry, psychology, philosophy, and pedagogy. By drawing attention to this medical specialty and the complexities of the different fields it addresses, I hope to have piqued the interest of historical and anthropological scholars. I include English and Italian language sources for further reading below.


References and Further Reading – English

Donnelly, Michael. 1992. The Politics of Mental Health in Italy. London ; New York: Routledge.

Feinstein, Adam. 2010. A History of Autism: Conversations with the Pioneers. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Levi, Gabriel, and Paola Bernabei. 1997. Italy. In Handbook of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders. 2nd edition. Donald J. Cohen and Fred R. Volkmar, eds. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Nardocci, Franco. 2009. The Birth of Child and Adolescent Neuropsychiatry: From Rehabilitation and Social Inclusion of the Mentally Handicapped, to the Care of Mental Health during Development. Ann Ist Super Sanità 45: 33–38.

References and Further Reading – Italian

Bracci, Silvia. 2003. Sviluppo della neuropsichiatria in Italia ed Europa. Storia delle istituzioni psichiatriche per l’infanzia. In L’Ospedale psichiatrico di Roma. Dal Manicomio Provinciale alla Chiusura. Antonio Iaria, Tommaso Losavio, and Pompeo Martelli, eds. Pp. 145–161. Bari: Dedalo.

Fiorani, Matteo. 2011. Giovanni Bollea, 1913-2011: Per Una Storia Della Neuropsichiatria Infantile in Italia. Medicina & Storia 11(21/22): 251–276.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

M. Ariel Cascio is an anthropologist specializing in the cultural study of science and biomedicine, psychological anthropology, and the anthropology of youth. She recently successfully defended her dissertation on autism in Italy at Case Western Reserve University. She can be reached at ariel.cascio@case.edu. Her blog, written in Italian and English, can be viewed here: https://arielcascio.wordpress.com/.

Current Issue Highlight: Vol. 38 Issue 4, December 2014

In our “Current Issue Highlight” series, we provide brief synopses of some of the original articles and commentaries published in our latest issue of Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry. We hope these glimpses into our recent publications serve as a taste of the research we publish, as well as offer fresh insights on the intersections of culture, disease, health, and healing.

“The Ethics of Ambivalence and the Practice of Constraint in US Psychiatry”

Paul Brodwin

“This article,” the abstract begins, “investigates the ambivalence of front-line mental health clinicians toward their power to impose treatment against people’s will.” Ambivalence is itself a psychological construct that describes the tensions between love and hate, or multiple perspectives, within both individual subjects as well as the collective social group: here, psychiatric health workers. Central to this article is the friction generated between the clinicians’ self-concept as caregivers and their professional drive to control patients. Such ambivalence about clinical work in psychiatry is evident in the ethnographic research presented here.

Brodwin’s piece reminds us that anthropology is perfectly situated to draw meaning from these problematic and conflicted perspectives within a social group. Rather than reconciling the participants’ feelings and drawing one universal message from them, Brodwin presents us with an authentic picture of the complicated world of clinical psychiatric practice. He concludes, “To understand the paradox, fieldwork should focus especially on the moments when people’s sense of unease erupts into collective life.”

Link to article: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11013-014-9401-z

“A Village Possessed by ‘Witches’: A Mixed-Methods Case–Control Study of Possession and Common Mental Disorders in Rural Nepal”

Ram P. Sapkota, et al.

In this article, the authors probe an important question: if we consider spirit possession and psychopathology as separate categories, rather than assume possession as a form of mental illness, how might we describe mental illness within a population who has experienced spirit possession? For societies in which spirit encounters are frequent and socially normative, reading mental illness as distinct from possession is particularly critical when exploring local psychic events.

Nepal provided fertile intellectual grounds for exploring this question because spiritual possession occurs regularly. When the researchers delivered educational sessions on psychosomatic and psychosocial illnesses, suggesting that spirit possession might be a type of mental distress, villagers in the study resisted this notion. They argued that possession was rooted in cosmological and supernatural disturbances, making them altogether different psychological phenomena.

Instead of casting possession as a brand of psychiatric illness, the authors suggest that we might view possession as a coping mechanism against other mental duress. In another way, we could conceive of possession as a cultural idiom of distress: reframing illness in terms of a socially acceptable category of experience that is widely shared.

Link to article: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11013-014-9393-8

“Confinement and Psychiatric Care: A Comparison Between High-Security Units for Prisoners and for Difficult Patients in France”

Livia Velpry & Benoît Eyraud

Focusing on French mental health care, this article explores the evolving use of confinement as part of the treatment of mentally ill individuals who exhibit violent behavior. The authors parallel the nature of confinement in French psychiatric wards to the security practices of high-security prison units.

In their research, Velpry and Eyraud discovered that the public appeal to heightened security in psychiatric institutions, as well as executive action from the president, led to a “turn” towards new confinement measures. Second, psychiatrists used this new narrative of control to justify control techniques that they argued gave patients “psychic structure.” Rather than standing as its own therapeutic measure, physicians employed confinement as a means of managing “difficult” patients.

As an object of inquiry, this recent trend in French psychiatry recalls the complementary trajectories of care and justice, power and control, as well as reflects on the changing landscape of what we define as therapy.

Link to article: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11013-014-9400-0

“Psychiatry with Teeth: Notes on Coercion and Control in France and the United States”

Anne M. Lovell & Lorna A. Rhodes

This commentary piece on the articles published in the current issue highlights the “rough edge” of the use of constraint and coercion to subdue “difficult” psychiatric patients. Lovell and Rhodes note that many of the articles demonstrate how these forms of discipline and control are enacted at the local scale, and remind us that the exchange between psychiatric patient and the care institution is the site of the strongest conflict when we look at systems of control. What is the border between “care and custody,” the issue asks? How do we as anthropologists contribute to the knowledge about these complex social interactions?

Furthermore, the authors observe that the geographic emphasis on psychiatric care in France and the United States is hardly accidental. Although care practices for the mentally ill differ widely between the two countries, the focus on constraint and control is similarly present in the scholarly literature produced on psychiatry in each place. Likewise, in French and American research, there is a mutual tendency to study mental health care in terms of autonomy, freedom, humanism, and democracy.

Link to commentary: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11013-014-9420-9


Want to see a preview and abstracts of all the articles in the current issue? Find details on the full issue here: http://link.springer.com/journal/11013/38/4/page/1