AAA 2017 Session Highlight: Jonathan Metzl, “Negroes With Guns: Mental Illness, Gun Violence, and the Racial Politics of Firearms”

This week on the blog we are highlighting an oral presentation given at this year’s annual American Anthropological Association conference in Washington D.C. by Jonathan Metzl entitled Negroes With Guns: Mental Illness, Gun Violence, and the Racial Politics of Firearms. The session was named “Critical Inquiries: Violence, Trauma, and the Right to Health” on Thursday, November 30, 2017. Metzl combined historiographical and ethnographic analysis to explore the connections between gun violence, mental illness, and shifting anxieties about race in the United States. Metzl discussed how decisions about which crimes American culture diagnoses as “crazy,” and which crimes it deems as “sane,” are driven as much by the politics and anxieties of particular cultural moments as by the innate neurobiologies of particular assailants. The presentation concluded by describing how racialized questions of whether “the insane” should be allowed to bear arms become the only publicly permissible way to talk about questions of gun control while other narratives, such as the mass psychology of needing so many guns in the first place or the anxieties created by being surrounded by them, remain silenced.

 


Metzl began his presentation by stating that after the recent and tragic Las Vegas mass shooting, he gave 58 interviews in only two days on “the insane politics of mass shootings.” The two main questions that get asked after each mass shooting are: “Is mental illness the cause of mass shootings?” and, “Will treating mental illness stop gun crime?” Both conservative and liberal media analyses include these types of questions, whether or not they ultimately claim mental illness as the answer (for example: NPR’s On Point, Politico, and Fox News). 

Yet Metzl asked, why do these mental illness questions follow after mass shootings? “Aren’t these questions starting to be ridiculous?” Metzl asked, after referring to a study published in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior which found some mass murderers and serial killers have something in common: autism and head injury. Yet this study was criticized for fueling judgments about an entire section of society and further contributing to the mental illness-gun violence debate.

In some ways, linking mass shootings and mental illness makes sense. Mass shootings are beyond the realm of “sanity” and understanding. Metzl stated that constructing a binary of sane vs. insane, good vs. evil, may be a means of processing grief and uncertainty. Further, many of the mass shooting perpetrators in the last decades have displayed some kind of mental illness symptomatology before their crimes. Mother Jones published an investigation of US mass shootings from 1982-2017 including information on the shooter’s race, gender, prior signs of mental health issues, mental health details, and whether or not the weapons were obtained legally. But this information cannot lead to a causal argument.

These types of questions have ideological and political roots, and focusing exclusively on issues of mental health force other concerns out of the debate. At a National Rifle Association (NRA) press conference in December 2012, chief executive Wayne LaPierre suggested having “an active national database for the mentally ill” would help prevent gun violence. In 2013, Ann Coulter wrote a Sound Off on Fox Nation entitled “Guns Don’t Kill People, The Mentally Ill Do.” After the 2015 Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs, Paul Ryan called for a need to look at fixing our nation’s mental illness health system, not it’s gun legislation. Most recently, following news of the mass shooting of parishioners at a Sunday service at a small Baptist church in Texas, Trump proclaimed mental health was the overarching issue, not gun control, even before complete details of the shooter were known. 

Following this overview of political ideologies shaping the mental illness conversation, Metzl then asks, “What can reasonably minded people do to push back?”

Metzl then presented five talking points about important ways to push back against the mental-illness-and-mass-shooting account while still remaining respectful of mental illness, treatments, and medications. These talking points discuss why this association is problematic.

1. “It’s sample bias – and dangerously so…”: Mass shootings come to stand for all shootings. But mass shootings are not the only time we need to talk about gun violence, Metzl stated. When we talk about mass shootings, we are not talking about policy implications for everyday gun death. Every day gun violence, gun proliferation, the ability to buy guns through loop holes should all be part of the national conversation. Worryingly, Metzl states, the situation is about to get much worse. Today (Wednesday, December 6, 2017) the House will vote on a “concealed carry reciprocity” bill, creating a national blanket right to carry a concealed weapon across state lines. For Metzl, the point overall is that the mental illness narrative distracts from daily gun violence and the political negotiations behind gun regulations. 

2. “It’s stigmatizing and misrepresentative…”: Fewer crimes involve people with mental illness. People with sanity are much more dangerous, Metzl stated. People diagnosed with a mental illness are less likely to shot other people, therefore we should really be restricting guns from the sane. Further, Metzl stated that statistically there is no predictive value in using a mental illness diagnosis for gun crime. Individuals with mental illness are more likely to be shot by police than to do the shooting themselves. 

3. “It constructs false psychiatric expertise…”: Psychiatrists are being told they should be able to predict which of their patients may commit violent act. Yet the pool of people they see are not a high risk population. Metzl stated the public culture of fear may lead psychiatrists to feel culpable for the actions of their patients, over-report their concerns, and complicates the doctor-patient confidentiality bond. In the weeks before the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting, shooter James Holmes was seeing a psychiatrist specializing in schizophrenia. In June 2012 The Brian Lehrer Show discussed how psychiatrists determine red flags with their patients and when behavior is concerning enough to warrant further action with Columbia University Director of Law, Ethics, and Psychiatry Paul Appelbaum

4. “It detracts from awareness of true predictive factors for everyday gun violence…”: The mental illness narrative also detracts from other risk factors for everyday gun violence and mass shootings. Substance use or abuse, past history of violence, lack of gun training, social networks, and access to firearms are all important predictive factors for gun violence.

5. “It’s racist…”: Last but certainly not least, the construction of a mentally ill, dangerous, white, male, gun-owning “loner” is a political choice. The intentional presentation of the individual-isolated-from-society is not supposed to be representative of white culture. Yet in the 1960s, the FBI openly blamed “crazy” black “culture” for the rise of public black activist groups. In debates leading up to the Gun Control Act of 1968, the U.S. Government and mainstream US culture proclaimed links between African American political protest, guns, and mental illness in ways that intensified fears about black activist groups. For example, FBI profilers diagnosed Malcolm X with “pre-psychotic paranoid schizophrenia” and with membership in the “Muslim Cult of Islam” while highlighting his militancy and his “plots” to overthrow the government. The FBI also hung “Armed and Dangerous” posters throughout the southern states warning citizens about Robert Williams, the controversial head of the Monroe, North Carolina chapter of the NAACP author of a manifesto, Negroes With Guns, that advocated gun rights for African Americans. According to the posters, “Williams allegedly has possession of a large quantity of firearms, including a .45 caliber pistol… He has previously been diagnosed as schizophrenic and has advocated and threatened violence.”

These historical narratives were linked to black culture, not black individuals. Issues of race and insanity produced black male bodies coded as insane. This association fostered fears that helped mobilize significant public and political sentiment for gun control. Yet there are very different politics of the present day. Metzl states were are in a time when white shooters with mental illness beget reaffirmations of gun rights and groups that advocate anti-government platforms and support broadening of gun rights, such as the Tea Party, take seats in Congress rather than being subjected to police scrutiny. For much of our country’s history, guns marked whiteness. 

Metzl concluded his presentation with a discussion of a helplessness narrative. There is a kind of inaction about calling mass shootings and gun violence part of mental illness. Since we can not do anything about whether or not individuals have mental illness, it allows us to ignore the other issues and risk factors. This further constructs a kind of persons, not a composition of something larger and more systemic. The learned helplessness surrounding gun crime in the US makes hard rhetorical work to not look at whiteness and mass culture as part of the problem. 


Jonathan Metzl, MD, PhD is the Frederick B. Rentschler II Professor of Sociology and Medicine, Health, and Society, Director for the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society, and Professor of Psychiatry at Vanderbilt University. He is also the Research Director of the Safe Tennessee Project, a non-partisan, volunteer-based organization that is concerned with gun-related injuries and fatalities in the United States and in the state of Tennessee. His areas of expertise include mental illness and gun violence with a particular focus on gender and race.

Learn more about Jonathan Metzl at his website, available here.

Advertisements

Book Review: “A Surgeon in the Village”

This week we are highlighting a book review written by Veronica Tomasic originally published in MedHum Daily Dose, a blog for the intersections of medicine and humanities, available here. The book is entitled A Surgeon in the Village: An American Doctor Teaches Brain Surgery in Africa (2017) by Tony Bartelme, published by Beacon Press.


A Surgeon in the Village: An American Doctor Teaches Brain Surgery in Africa (Beacon Press, 2017) is the story of American neurosurgeon Dr. Dilan Ellegala’s efforts to provide medical aid in Tanzania. It was written by Tony Bartelme, an American reporter for Charleston, South Carolina’s Post and Courier; Bartelme is a three time Pulitzer prize finalist, including for the series that formed the basis for this book. The Post and Courier’s executive editor relayed a story to Bartelme about a “crazy brain surgeon who opened a guy’s head with a wire saw in Africa”; Bartelme’s interest was piqued and thus began the story that he narrates here (269).

A Surgeon in the Village is a bildungsroman of sorts. It describes the beginning of Ellegala’s career as a neurosurgeon and his personal journey toward finding meaning in his work. It is also about his ideas for how foreign medical aid should be delivered, and the growth of an organization, Madaktari Africa (Madaktari means doctors in Swahili), that he formed as a result of his ideas.

We first meet Ellegala when he has just completed his neurosurgery training in the US. He is burned out after years of grueling residency and fellowship programs. He travels to Tanzania for six months, volunteering to perform brain surgery at a small, remote hospital. Ellegala is determined to spend as much time as possible vacationing while there. But his plan changes after he starts to attend daily morning meetings where the visiting foreign students and MDs, and local medical personnel gather to discuss their cases. Ellegala observes that the foreign students sit in a privileged position at the front of the room, while the local personnel — such as assistant medical officers (or “AMOs,” who have paramedic plus a few years’ level of training) — stand at the back of the room. This disturbs his sense of propriety — in the US, medical students typically stand or sit behind attendings and residents. He insists that the students and local personnel trade places, a shift that becomes a central organizing metaphor for the book. The change symbolizes the degree of responsibility Ellegala believes the local staff should have for the care they provide, and the respect he feels they should be shown by foreign visitors.

Galvanized, Ellegala starts to rethink traditional models for providing aid in Tanzania, a country with limited resources to train and keep its own MDs. Rather than encourage foreign MDs to travel to a hospital, perform surgeries for a brief period of time and then leave, Ellegala realizes that it makes more sense to train local AMOs to perform neurosurgical procedures. If they can take over, he reasons, a hospital will transition from being dependent on outside help to being self-sustaining. Ellegala notices an AMO who has a surgeon’s confidence about him, Emmanuel Mayyega, and he trains him to diagnose and perform operations for a number of conditions, such as intracranial tumors, head trauma, and hydrocephalus. Eventually, Mayyega trains others. And thus began the “train forward” movement in Tanzania.

Bartelme weaves through his account the challenges Ellegala faces in his career as he devotes time, money, and considerable energy to Madaktari Africa. He also describes some of the ethical issues that are raised by the “train forward” practice. For example, should we accept that people will die in countries where there are not enough traditionally-trained MD surgeons to perform surgeries? Or should surgeries in these countries be performed by people with limited training and supervision because they can save lives? And what about the liability exposure for people trained under such circumstances? One area where the book could have been strengthened would have been to devote a chapter to the history of aid organizations and their varied philosophies. While mention of organizations such as Smile Train, or Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health, among others, are interspersed throughout the book, it was never clear to me whether Ellegala was the first person to conceptualize “train forward,” or whether such a practice had already been established in other countries.

Altogether, A Surgeon in the Village is a warmly engaging account of one doctor’s efforts to make a difference in a part of the world that has limited medical resources, and the personal rewards his efforts afforded him. It would be useful for medical providers and students to read, as well as anyone interested in how best to provide aid to other countries.


Veronica Tomasic (PhD, JD) practices community law in the New Haven, CT, area. She is a scholar of literature, painting, psychoanalytic theory, and end-of-life issues.

For more information about the book, visit the Beacon Press website, here.

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.


cropped-cards.jpg

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.