McGill University’s Summer Program in Social and Cultural Psychiatry is not just about the differences between Swedes and Irish. As part of the summer program’s keynote course, Cultural Psychiatry, McGill luminary Laurence Kirmayer includes a number of film clips in the syllabus to give students a chance to observe some of the phenomena that gets diagnosed by psychiatrists using Western psychiatric categories, but may perhaps make more sense by examining the patient’s cultural and historical context.
One of the most striking films shown (so far) comes from Robert Lemelson’s psychiatric anthropology series, Afflictions: Culture and Mental Illness in Indonesia. In “Shadows and Illuminations,” a man presents with visual and auditory hallucinations of Balinese spirits, disorganized behavior and inappropriate dress. His family and neighbors regard him as odd, so it’s not the case that he is just odd to our foreign eyes. Our psychiatric practice tells us to look for schizophrenia. He reports the symptoms began with the death of his daughter, and we think perhaps it is a posttraumatic stress reaction of some sort. He is examined by two traditional healers and a psychiatrist, all of which have their own treatments, but none of which seem to help. Accommodations are made for the man’s behavior in his own home, and he seems to get a little better. Improvement had nothing to do with our diagnosis, or lack thereof.
Each story in the series situates behavior and concepts of illness within the families and societies in which they occur. Not satisfied with biological explanations of these patients’ problems, Lemelson’s films remind us that psychiatric practices have non-psychiatric implications, specifically around family relations, historical meaning-making, and even implications related to the freedom of the individuals with mental health problems.