Writing a couple of weeks ago in the New Scientist, Ethan Watters describes the exportation and globalisation of mental illness and its treatment. Focusing on the particular example of post traumatic stress disorder, Watters suggests that whilst “mental illnesses are not evenly distributed globally, and do not take the same form from place to place”, it is perhaps one of the greatest achievements of globalisation that such “culturally distinct expressions of trauma” are not only conceptualised through, but incorporated into, a homogenous, American version of mental illness.
A further case study of Watter’s report is the example of the treatment of mental illness after natural disasters, wars and genocides: all notably ignorant of “the local idioms of distress”.
Using the recent devastation of Haiti as something to help us ground these ideas, it is interesting to think of Watters’ exportation of mental illness alongside more general discourses of aid and development. Writing in Geography Compass, Andrew McGregor provides a review and history of post-development studies, with a special emphasis on an ongoing struggle to “demystify and challenge the taken-for-granted goodness and vagueness that has surrounded development since its inception” (1699).
Although necessarily going beyond the theme of mental illness here, McGregor usefully describes post-development “from its early angry incarnations to its current experimental and optimistic mood” (1688), and lays the foundations for a more grass-roots, practice-based approach to development. Such an approach would mean debunking reified structures of meaning and practice (not unlike the application of anglo-american conceptions of mental illness), and ‘couching the study of post-development in the languages of hope and possibility’.
Read McGregor A (2009) New possibilities? Shifts in Post-Development theory and practice. Geography Compass. 3. 5, 1688-1702