A multi-perspective of global mental health: A summary and reflection on the seminar

Yifan Lu, MSc Medical Anthropology

On October 15th  2019, a seminar on mental health and International Development took place at  the UCL Department of Anthropology. Five contributors to the newly published book, The Routledge Handbook of International Development, Mental Health and Wellbeing, gave talks on mental health, drawn from their research. This volume intends to contribute towards meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3 to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”.

Rachel Jenkins from King’s College London focused on strategies of mental health promotion for policy-making systems at national, regional and local levels. This is an issue that deserves more attention. Mental health promotion, she noted, is associated with not only strengthened physical health, but also poverty reduction and economic growth, which are both listed as identifiable objectives beyond SDG3 . Thus, it remains a crucial task to mainstream mental health within the health field, as well as other non-health sectors.

Chris Underhill, founder of the mental health NGO BasicNeeds and CitiesRise, drew from his working experience in Vietnam to describe possible community-based interventions which address poverty and mental health.

Drawing on his research on mental illness in the Native American Church and Bhutan, Joseph Calabrese from UCL pointed out a predicament that both simplistic relativists and anti-relativists are in when facing diverse local cultural realities. He argued that local and traditional treatments should be understood in a clinically-informed way, and the ethnocentrism of biomedicine should be examined critically when policies are implemented.

Svend Aage Madsen from Copenhagen University Hospital and the Danish Men’s Health Forum noted that men’s tendency to not seek help is related to a culture of masculinity which may even cause additional stigma for those with mental illness. Thus, it requires a global effort to address the neglect of men’s mental health and well-being.

Using cases from Zambia and Paraguay, Laura Davidson from Trustee of Mental Health Research UK discussed human rights of people with psychosocial disabilities.

The “decontextualized” statement of SDG3 suggests that discontinuities may exist where the macro-micro/top-down/global-local approaches are initiated. Under such circumstances, to what extent and how local paradigms should be shaped remains to be explored.

The fact that issues of mental health are entering, yet still perceived as unidentifiable objectives, in high level meetings and conferences points to the sequence of priorities when it comes to development on a broader scale. Further, difficulty in raising awareness also comes from individual perceptions of mental health, which is partially supported in analyses of gender difference, summarised above.

Yet, the suffering of those with mental illness still needs to be addressed. Video clips of extreme cases of human rights used in the seminar generate visual impact, but still, the specific context and life experiences of the person presented tend to be neglected by viewers undergoing strong emotions. To understand the pain requires to know subtleties underlying their life experiences beyond viewers’ emotions. What seems to add to such difficulty is that mental illness challenges the way that the voices of sufferers are interpreted, either by non-afflicted people or those with similar biomedical diagnoses. I argue that it is crucial to respond to these questions before a suitable local supportive network can be established, that is beyond, but centered around, individuals.

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