SPA Interview with Dr. Rebecca Lester

This week on the blog we are featuring a partial summary of an interview with Dr. Rebecca Lester, conducted by Ellen Kozelka, as part of the Society for Psychological Anthropology “Voices of Experience” series. In this audio conversation, available in full here, Dr. Lester discusses her newest book project, Famished: Eating Disorders in the Era of Managed Care, focusing on the conditions and experience of eating disorders treatment in the United States. Also discussed in the interview is Dr. Lester’s research interests, reflections on her personal experience experience with an eating disorder, and the linking of anthropology to advocacy. Dr. Lester’s book is not yet for sale.

The SPA “Voices of Experience” series is a venue to showcase the range of work that psychological anthropologists engage in, and to give listeners, virtually attending the live events, the opportunity to ask prominent scholars in the field about their work.


The interview begins with a reading of the book’s preface by Dr. Lester herself. The recitation narrates the experience of an insertion of a nasogastric (NG) tube and subsequent first “feeding” of an 11-year-old girl with anorexia. Capturing the anxiety and fear of being forcibly held down for the insertion of the NG tube, and yet still being terrified of eating, Dr. Lester describes the instructions given by the doctor before inserting the NG tube. “We are going to put it in. You can either cooperate with me here, or we can take you to a seclusion room and put you in restrains and do it there. It’s your choice,” the doctor says to the girl.

The process of having an NG tube placed is extremely uncomfortable. Feeling disconnected from the world around her, exhausted from the painful NG tube ordeal, and distraught from watching “so many calories” being pumped into her body while she is unable to do anything about it, the young girl is then further mentally assaulted by another patient nearby asking her questions about her new feeding tube.

“Is [anorexia] the thing where you’re scared of getting fat so you starve yourself and you get real skinny? Hell, I wish I could have anorexia for a day,” the older patient states while laughing and grabbing at her own stomach fat. The young girl is then left to make sense of her situation while listening to the woman and another patient chatting about how much they wish they had the willpower to starve themselves as the holiday season approached.

This preface sets the tone for what it is like to be a patient in an eating disorders clinic. This reading then transitions the conversation into the interview between Dr. Lester and Ellen Kozelka.

Ellen Kozelka: What is the managed care system as it relates to eating disorders treatment, and why is it so important to understand its moral dimensions?

Dr. Lester: Managed care operates as a moral system in our society. So in terms of eating disorders, we are in a situation where our healthcare system is really predicated on a certain kind of understanding of what health is and what a person is. This is foundationally oriented to the splitting off of behavioral health and medical care.

Managed care plans have a pot of money that goes to medical care, and another pot of money is set aside for mental health, behavioral, or psychiatric care, depending on how insurance companies classify it. What’s challenging in terms of eating disorders is that they are conditions that bridge both of those domains. Certainly there are medical complications to other things, such as addictions, but we find in eating disorders this bridging of the medical and of mental health in terms of the symptomatology.

Trying to get an integrated treatment approach for eating disorders is really difficult. Clinicians are left to try and piece together care, but getting that care reimbursed is extremely difficult. Often times managed care companies will pay for the acute medical issues, such as an inpatient hospitalization because of a cardiac incident, but you then cannot also get mental health care at the same time. Or you can go to an outpatient clinic for the psychiatric concerns, but you then are not able to also be treated for the physical complication that might be going on too. Thus it is very difficult to provide a full spectrum of care to someone in a way that is actually going to treat the problem.

Kozelka: The foundation of the system in the US is that physical medical care and mental health care are two separate things, which based on this idea of what health is and what the person is. So would that make managed care in the US a type of cultural system?

Dr. Lester: Absolutely. One of the things I’ve been interested in is what kind of philosophies of the person are embedded in our healthcare system and how is that structuring or impacting the way that clinicians are perceiving what’s going on with clients, what the problem is, or how to best intervene with them. It’s a whole epistemological and world view about humans and what motivates humans, and what the appropriate end goal of that behavior should be.

Kozelka: In your book you provide an overarching definition of care. Care “orchestrates cognitive and sensory attunement, practical agency, and affective imagination into a disposition to the ‘other’ which comes to organize attention, doing, and feeling in locally meaningful ways.” This definition of care combines two previously separate conceptual definitions of care as practical or political action, and care as affective concern. How do you see this combination linking to your understanding of care in relation to power?

Dr. Lester: Something that many of us as psychological anthropologists struggle to do in our work is try to illuminate the ways that these are not different domains. When we talk about political or practical action, and we talk about affective experience or subjective experience, they are not separate domains. We can separate them ideologically, but in terms of the way people live their lives, the domains are intertwined.

Part of what I’ve been interested in is how these structures of power operate across multiple levels of analysis at once. Care in all of the senses of the definition above, is a way of constituting not only an object of concern, but who the subject of care is, and how that person is constituted as a moral agent, or not, in a given circumstance. We have to look at how political and practical components of care are connecting and interacting with the affective dimensions and the subjective experience of care. That is where you see psychological anthropology coming in and trying to theorize about what these connections are in a way that’s rigorous and ethnographically grounded.

Kozelka: How do these moral dimensions of care, in terms of whether the or not the individual is considered to be a “good patient,” relate to the actions that these managed care systems either take or don’t take?

Dr. Lester: There are different ways of thinking about a patient, such as framing the patient as a moral actor, or discussing the patient in relation to her own quest for health, whatever that is. In the case of eating disorders, it can become a situation where it almost does not matter what the patient does. It does matter, but the same action can be interpreted in a variety of ways depending on how you are thinking about that actor as a moral agent or not.

Compliance and non-compliance are big concerns in all of healthcare, certainly in behavioral health, but particularly in the field of eating disorders where patients are historically thought to be non-compliant, resistant, or really difficult to work with. Managed care companies have concerns about patient complying with the treatment recommendations. What I saw again and again is that it almost did not matter what the patient did. There would be times where they were complying, following the regulations and meal plans, and doing what they were supposed to do. But the insurance companies were skeptical of the motivations for this behavior, so that even when clients were complying with treatment, their compliance was sometimes read as manipulation. That’s just an example of how these moral dimensions, or how you constitute the recipient of care as a moral agent or not, affects the way that care is delivered, almost regardless of what the person is actually doing.

Kozelka: In this system were patients are constantly being scrutinized, how do you think these factors affect their experience of treatment?

Dr. Lester: It’s horrible. It would be miserable for any of us to be in that circumstance. This is particularly challenging for these patients because a lot of the dynamics experienced during the course of treatment itself are the exact same issues that they are already struggling with. These are questions like, “Are you worthy of care,” “Are you worthy of attention,” “Are you worthy of time,” and “Do you matter?” These questions are really at the core of eating disorders for a lot of people.

Dr. Rebecca Lester, via Washington University in St. Louis Dept of Anthropology website

Patients are being told they should not always be monitoring or surveying themselves, yet at the same time, because of the kinds of things that the insurance companies care about in order to make their decisions, patients are being constantly monitored and evaluated. There is a constant, pervasive insecurity that pervades that clinic where you do not know from one day to the next if someone is going to be deemed “sick enough” to still need care, “too sick” to remain there, “invested enough” in her recovery, or “invested too much in her recovery” and thus deemed as manipulative. It is this constant uncertainty and people trying to make themselves into appropriate patients just so that they can get care.

This does not address the underlying issues that are going on. So this scrutiny affects them a lot, especially when clients want treatment, doctors say they need treatment, but insurance companies say “No.” There are even discussions among the clinicians, expressing that “if only she were cutting, because then we could get her treatments.”

Further, the patients may not even be able to deal with some of the underlying things that possibly got them to the eating disorder because they are so busy dealing with the feelings around not being worthy of getting treatment. If the insurance companies deny them, they cannot get treatment. There is a case I discuss in the book of a 14 year-old teenager who was struggling with anorexia in the clinic. Her weight had gone up a bit during the two or three weeks she was admitted and making progress. But then her insurance ran out, and the family did not have the financial resources to afford the $1,200 a day price tag. Their only option was to get the teenager into a research study going on at a local university where a randomly assigned treatment group would get free therapy. The problem was that she had gained too much weight for the regulations of the study, forcing the clinic staff to put her on a diet at the treatment center in order to get her down in weight enough so that she could get free treatment. That was the only option besides merely discharging her with no support.

Kozelka: What do you think the study of self brings to anthropology as a whole?

Dr. Lester: It’s absolutely critical. The self as a general category is about why people do what they do. We cannot understand why, or effectively theorize about why, unless we are willing to engage with questions about parts of experience that we cannot directly observe. We have to be open and flexible enough to understand different ways that different groups of people comprehend the components of what makes up a person, how to understand motivation, or whatever we want to call why people do things. It is imperative if we, as a field, want to have something useful to say.


The interview with Dr. Lester continues, and concludes with a question and answer session with listeners who were virtually tuned in during the live recording of the interview. The full audio interview recording is available here.


Dr. Rebecca Lester is an Associate Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, and a practicing clinical social worker. Her interests include how individuals experience existential distress, and how this distress manifests as psychiatric symptoms, religious angst, somatic pain, and other culturally informed bodily conditions.  Specifically, she considers how bodily practices deemed “deviant,” “extreme,” or “pathological” – and local responses to such practices – make visible competing cultural logics of acceptable moral personhood. Along with her many publications and previous book, Jesus in our Wombs: Embodying Modernity in a Mexican Convent (2005) from the University of California Press, Dr. Lester is also the founder, Executive Director, and a psychotherapist of the non-profit Foundation for Applied Psychiatric Anthropology.

Ellen Kozelka is a graduate student at University of California, San Diego.

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In the News: “Life After the Storm” and the Psychological Impacts of Hurricane Survivorship

In our In the News post this week, we are discussing the lasting psychological impacts people face after surviving a large natural disaster event, such as the string of recent hurricanes battering the United States and the Caribbean. Building from a recent New York Times article by Benedict Carey entitled Life After the Storm: Children Who Survived Katrina Offer Lessons, available here, this post discusses how lasting damage from natural disasters can be much more than physical and economic.


September 2017. Benedict begins his article by sharing the story of Craig Jones, now 22 years old, who was in fifth grade when Hurricane Katrina in 2005 devastated his neighborhood of Pigeon Town in New Orleans. After spending years on the move, living between hotel rooms, Jones returned to New Orleans in his late teens. He remembers that “home” was not the same place he had left, and his “homesickness” became troubling anxiety and seemingly random panic attacks.

Lacey Lawrence, 22, at work in New Orleans. She escaped the floods of Hurricane Katrina on an air mattress. Now she teaches children coping skills. Credit: Annie Flanagan for The New York Times

Another survivor, Lacey Lawrence, now 22, escaped the water of Hurricane Katrina on an air mattress. Lawrence recalls the experience of seeing police officers pushing away floating bodies with oars, missing and uncle who presumably drowned, and wondering where a young cousin disappeared to for several hours. Later, at a new school, Lawrence was ill-equipped to deal with her experience. “I was getting into fights; real fights, violent ones. That was something I never did before, ever. But you lose everything and you don’t know how to deal with it – no one prepares you for that” (Benedict 2017).

Studying the psychological impacts from previous hurricanes may offer hints of what may be to come for those who have survived Hurricane Harvey, Irma, and most recently, Maria. Mental health providers and social scientists are acutely aware of the unpredictable traumatic consequences which can emanate from surviving natural disasters. Yet the impacts of surviving a hurricane may be unique.

Benedict (2017) writes, “Unlike an earthquake or a fire, flooding from a storm like Katrina or Harvey leaves many houses and buildings still physically standing but uninhabitable, simultaneously familiar and strange, like a loved one sinking into dementia.”

In a series of publications from the Stress & Development Laboratory at the University of Washington, the research teams concluded that the prevalence of “serious emotional disturbance” (SED) in young adults after exposure to Hurricane Katrina remained significantly elevated several years after their experience of the storm (McLaughlin et al. 2010). The prevalence of SED among young adults who experienced Hurricane Katrina was considerably greater than the pre-hurricane prevalence. According to a 2010 study, approximately 8% of youths were estimated to have SED that is directly attributable to their experience of the hurricane. Further, the majority of adults who developed posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after Katrina, including delayed onset PTSD, did not recover within 18-27 months (McLaughlin et al. 2011).

Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the majority of the literature focuses on the prevalence of and risk for the development of mental health problems following a storm or hurricane. For example, a study of the presence of PTSD symptoms after Hurricane Mitch in 1998 in a low-income area of Nicaragua found that the occurrence of PTSD in the areas with the least damage was 4.5%, while the most damaged areas was 9% (Davis, Tarcza, and Munson 2009). Variables such as low social support, prior exposure to traumas, and poor health status were found to be universally predictive of psychopathology symptoms (Davis, Tarcza, and Munson 2009).

A 2005 study by Fried, Domino, and Shadle looked at the use of mental health services after Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and found that visits to psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, and physicians for mental health reasons were higher in affected areas after the hurricane. However, inpatient admissions and the money spent on anti-anxiety medications decreased, indicating that there were likely problems with service delivery for those that did seek help (Davis, Tarcza, and Munson 2009).

Flooded homes are shown near Lake Houston on Aug. 30 after Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston area.
Photo from NPR: Win McNamee/Getty Images

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Texas officials were “scrambling to coordinate mental health support” and the state’s psychology board issued temporary practice licenses for out-of-state therapists (Benedict 2017).

In a recent CNN article, Jesse Cougle, an associate professor of psychology at Florida State University, said that the people who stared and witnessed the destruction of Hurricane Irma will likely experience worse mental health problems than those who evacuated (Scutti 2017).

Chief of emergency mental health and traumatic stress services branch at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Capt. Maryann Robinson, stated that “when you go home and now you are actually faced with what has happened — the devastation that has occurred in your home — it really does re-traumatize the individual” (Scutti 2017).

Overall, anticipating the consequences for major hurricanes should encompass more than disaster preparedness schemes and evacuations routes. Multi-state collaborations

Katrina’s young survivors, now older and reflecting on their experiences, say that “overcoming the mental strain of displacement is like escaping the rising water itself – a matter of finding something to hold onto, one safe place or reliable person, each time you move” (Benedict 2017).


References Cited:

Davis T.E., Tarcza E.V., Munson M.S. (2009) The Psychological Impact of Hurricanes and Storms on Adults. In: Cherry K. (eds) Lifespan Perspectives on Natural Disasters. Springer, New York, NY. Pp. 97-112. (Available here: http://stressdevelopmentlab.org/publications)

McLaughlin, K. A., Berglund, P., Gruber, M. J., Kessler, R. C., Sampson, N. A., & Zaslavsky, A. M. (2011). Recovery from PTSD following Hurricane Katrina. Depression and anxiety, 28(6):439-446. (Available here: http://stressdevelopmentlab.org/publications)

McLaughlin, K. A., Fairbank, J. A., Gruber, M. J., Jones, R. T., Osofsky, J. D., Pfefferbaum, B., … & Kessler, R. C. (2010). Trends in serious emotional disturbance among youths exposed to Hurricane Katrina. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 49(10):990-1000. (Available here: http://stressdevelopmentlab.org/publications)

Carey, Benedict. (September 8, 2017) Life After the Storm: Children Who Survived Katrina Offer Lessons. The New York Times. Available here: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/08/health/katrina-harvey-children.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fhealth&_r=0

Scutti, Susan. (September 20, 2017) Resilience, suffering and silver liniings after a disaster. CNN. Available here: http://www.cnn.com/2017/09/19/health/psychological-aftermath-hurricanes-harvey-irma/index.html


Further Reading:

Davis III, Thompson, Amie Grills-Taquechel, and Thomas Ollendick. (2010) The Psychological Impact From Hurricane Katrina: Effects of Displacement and Trauma Exposure on University Students. Behav Ther 41(3):340-349.

Domonoske, Camila. (September 26, 2017) Long After The Hurricanes Have Passes, Hard Work – And Hazards – Remain. NPR. Available here: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/09/26/552063244/long-after-the-hurricanes-have-passed-hard-work-and-hazards-remain

Fothergill, Alice, and Lori Peek (2015) Children of Katrina. Austin: University of Texas Press. Available here https://utpress.utexas.edu/books/fothergill-peek-children-of-katrina

McLaughlin, K.A., Fairbanks, J.A., Gruber, M., Jones, R.T., Pfefferbaum, B., Sampson, N., & Kessler, R.C. (2009). Serious emotional disturbance among youth exposed to Hurricane Katrina two years post-disaster. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 48:1069-1078. (Available here: http://stressdevelopmentlab.org/publications)

Shear, M. K., McLaughlin, K. A., Ghesquiere, A., Gruber, M. J., Sampson, N. A., & Kessler, R. C. (2011). Complicated grief associated with Hurricane Katrina. Depression and Anxiety, 28(8):648-657. (Available here: http://stressdevelopmentlab.org/publications)

Article Highlight: Vol. 41, Issue 1, “‘I Don’t Have Time for an Emotional Life’: Marginalization, Dependency and Melancholic Suspension in Disability”

This week on the blog we are highlighting Brian Watermeyer’s article “I Don’t Have Time for an Emotional Life”: Marginalization, Dependency and Melancholic Suspension in Disability. Watermeyer provides an introduction to key aspects of the social and economic marginalization of the disability minority experienced globally. He then explores and compares the complex debates surrounding materialist and psychological approaches and accounts of racism and disablism, particularly with reference to the place of grief and loss in disability discourse. Finally, Watermeyer considers how Cheng’s engagement with racial melancholia may help illuminate how disability inequality, like that of race, may remain a stubborn reality.

Watermeyer begins by discussing some theoretical orientations of social inequality. In the discipline of disability studies, it is a historical materialist (Marxian) approach which has dominated, with particular attention to psychological aspects of disability oppression. Disablism can be defined as discrimination based on physical, sensory, cognitive, or psychiatric impairment. Combined with critical and liberatory theory of racial inequalities, Watermeyer states it is reasonable to assume that living in the face of discrimination and marginalization will create feelings of grief, withdrawal, and suffering, as harms are sustained at both the physical and psychological levels.

In her book, The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation and Hidden Grief, Ann Cheng (2000) presents a psychological model of racial inequality with loss at its center. For Cheng, racial inequality persists within the United States because it forbids grief. The larger, societal demand for every individual to strive for an ideal cultural whiteness continually pulls individuals away from an emotional center, creating ambivalence, a lack of self-empathy, and distortions of ideology.

Building off of Cheng’s argument, Watermeyer discusses the shared characteristics of racism and disablism. Prejudice and stigma are the ever-present companions of structural inequalities for both forms of disparity. Disabled people, especially those in low income countries, are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, as most societies are designed with only the needs of the non-disabled majority in mind. There are formidable barriers to housing, transportation, and freedom of movement, as well as exclusion or segregation in education and other public accommodations.

Additionally, Watermeyer states the cultural embeddedness of making sense of disability via a “medical model” has reinforced the marginal position of disabled people. In this institutional view, social disadvantage is understood as a simple consequence of bodily difference or dysfunction, portraying disabled people as “damaged invalids” who are unable to contribute in community life. This view negates any consideration of discrimination’s role in inequality.

While the historical materialist view recognizes the role of biomedicine in justifying the marginalization of disabled people, it is the quantifiable, visible reality of exclusion from the workplace, and other “barriers to participation,” as its primary focus. Yet Watermeyer recognizes the analysis of oppression should not just be in the public, institutional spheres, but should also include private domains. Social exhaustion and scarcity have a psychological component, and it is important to understand the ways in which ongoing assaults on identity limit the imaging of different social organization.

For Watermeyer, there are several problems with describing feelings of damage and tragedy as arising from both congenital and adventitious impairment, with little or no attention to structural or contextual factors. This viewpoint positions impairment of the body as the central disadvantage faced by disabled people, ignoring injustices such as discrimination and rejection. Further, attaching narratives of tragedy to disabled people has been loudly rejected by the international disability movement. According to Kleinman, Das, and Lock (1997), if there is loss or grief in the lives of disabled people, it has to do with social suffering, not bodily “flaws.”

While discussing oppression and melancholia, Watermeyer describes an encounter with “J,” a male psychotherapy client living with tetraplegia (paralysis of the lower limbs and partial paralysis of the upper). A South African man in his mid-twenties, J lived a life of profound structural exclusion, unemployment, physical dependency, a poor social network, and imprisonment in his mother’s residence by poverty and poor public transportation. In his limited engagements with the world, indications that he was “broken” were commonplace.

When questioned about his emotional experience of these circumstances, J’s reply was, “I don’t have time for an emotional life.” At the subjective level, being trapped in an immovable system of structural exclusion meant being equally controlled by an “emotional economy,” with its own rules on what could be felt, loved, hated, or hoped for. In J’s life, these constraints appeared to limit emotional freedom as definitively as unreachable buses limited his movement. Emotional care, guilt, and limited space were the constant followers of his physical dependency, transferring feelings of sadness, frustration, or rage to unconsciousness. Simply, “not having time for an emotional life” meant not having the resources to overcome prohibitions on feelings and expressions of grief.

Melancholic systems deal with difference by maintaining existing racialized and discriminatory structures. This disjuncture produces a detrimental position involving both alienation from one’s emotional self, and experiences in the social world which repeatedly point to one’s failure to assume the ideals which secure real belonging. Watermeyer states that dominant culture presents disabled people with a paradox: while reaffirming the message that the disabled figure is dismal and broken, the world demands that he or she not grieve, as this would be a submission to the passivity, pessimism, and invalid status that pervade the disabled stereotype. As in the case of race, the ruling is “prove to me that you are not what I know you to be.”

Watermeyer’s perspective reframes lives of disabled people as basic to the universal human condition. The stereotype which attaches loss simplistically to impairment is rejected, and replaced by a more nuanced picture of struggle relating to discrimination, structural exclusion, pain, fatigue, and the host of everyday miseries that punctuate any human life.


References Cited:

Cheng, Ann A. (2000) The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief. Berkley: Oxford University Press.

Kleinman, A., V. Das, and M. Lock. (1997) Social Suffering. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Message from the Society for Applied Anthropology 2017 Annual Meeting

sfaa-2

“Like the roads to Rome, all trails lead to Santa Fe” (Ruth Laughlin, Caballeros, 1931)

The Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry editorial team sends our greetings this week from the Society for Applied Anthropology 2017 Annual Meeting in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This year’s meeting will be held March 28th – April 1st, with session listings and other helpful information available here. We hope all of our readers attending the conference have safe travels to– and many productive conversations at– this year’s meeting.

This year’s theme is “Trails, Traditions, and New Directions,” embracing the Santa Fe location as a place steeped in centuries of traditions, where Native histories reach back 10,000 years and follow paths through time and across geographical space. Metaphorically, this theme highlights the importance of understanding the history and intended destination of those “theoretical trails” that we follow when engaging our community partners, methodology, and active interpretations. Presentations that approach current issues from a historical perspective—including health disparities, energy and climate change, interpreting culture—or any of our broad concerns are encouraged, as is work that critically examines the motivations that have guided social science research and practice in the past.

Highlights from this conference will be featured on the blog next week.

Best wishes,

The CMP Editorial Team

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.

 

Message from the Society for Psychological Anthropology 2017 Biennial Meeting

spa-logoThe Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry editorial team sends our greetings this week from the Society for Psychological Anthropology 2017 Biennial Meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana. This year’s meeting will be held March 9-12th, with session listings and other helpful information available here. We hope all of our readers attending the conference have safe travels to– and many productive conversations at– this year’s meeting. As a reminder, we continue to accept guest blog submissions on topics spanning cultural medical anthropology and related disciplines in the social sciences and medical humanities.

Highlights from this conference will be featured on the blog next week.

Consider submitting an abbreviated version of your SPA conference presentation as a guest blog, or write a commentary on one of the keynote speeches at the event. We look forward to sharing the work and research of our readers with our colleagues on the blog! If you are interested in submitting a guest blog, please contact social media editor Sonya Petrakovitz at smp152@case.edu for details.

Best wishes,

The CMP Editorial Team

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.