USF researchers shine light on "The Politics of Mental Health"

Graduate students and faculty members at University of South Florida and colleagues tackle tough questions about mental illnesses and add new dimensions to discussions about the “politics” of mental health in a recently published special issue of the Journal of Medicine and the Person (2015: 13:139-141) (http://link.springer.com/journal/12682/13/3/page/1)

“According to several mental health studies, one out of four Americans has been diagnosed with a mental illness, or should be diagnosed with a mental illness,” says Mariaelena Bartesaghi, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Communication, College of Arts and Sciences, who wrote an introductory editorial for the special issue. “You can look at this staggering statistic from a clinical perspective that suggests we are getting sicker as a people, or challenge this perspective by looking at these illnesses as coherent responses to a society that is unwell.”

Past and current USF students of Bartesaghi and faculty members who contributed to the special issue took on the task of defining mental health and illness through narratives and examined how the stories are enmeshed in political discourse ranging from the biology of the brain to pharmacological solutions. They raised compelling questions such as: Are psychotropic drugs doing more harm than good? And, is there an ‘internal conflict’ in the ‘business model’ of society? The authors also examined the state of mental health care in the U.S. in the 21st century.

“The current system is not meeting the needs of Americans with behavioral health issues, and this special issue highlights some of the problems in our current system of behavioral health care,” explains contributor Amber Gum, PhD, associate professor, Department of Mental Health Law and Policy, College of Behavioral & Community Sciences.

*Amber Gum questions whether psychotropic medications are less effective and more harmful than most believe. “This is an emotionally charged topic that threatens professional identities and livelihoods.”

*Alyse Keller, wrote on ‘personifying’ anxiety and choices to see anxiety as ‘part of oneself.’ This may offer a new perspective and understanding of how anxiety influences one’s sense of self.

*Is there an internal conflict in the ‘business model’ of psychiatry? asks Heather Curry. “The business of psychiatry and practices of healing locate psychiatry as a function of late capitalism,” she says.

* Lorraine E. Monteagut’s remembers a grandmother’s “craziness,” which were called “ghosts” by the Cuban-American family in which she grew up, and writes about along with ties to the country of origin. By understanding hallucinations as ghosts, Monteagut’s narrative connects with neuroanthropology.

*What does it mean to be crazy? Asks Jacob Abraham, who writes about people who take pride in their ‘social performances’ that earn them the “crazy” label. The insight changes the vocabulary of mental illness and turns on its head the narrative by which we know it.

*Adriane B. Anderson’sinterviews with an older woman who describes herself as being ‘bi-polar’ provides a picture of a person, not a disease or illness. “She unlocked the beauty that is in the bodies and minds of people who society relegates to institutions,” wrote Anderson of Arnene, a gifted artist and art teacher.

*Repeated patterns that are considered by many as signs of mental illness are the topic of Shomik Chakrabarti, who begins with accounts of Vincent van Gogh’s repeated patterns of his difficult life. “Some patterns are considered to be signs of mental illness while other patterns are considered normal and efficient,” writes Chakrabarti, who notes that a connection between madness and creative genius is almost taken for granted.

*Jillian DeFreitas discusses the prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnoses in children, which is at an all time high. Because more parents are in need of autism resources for their children than ever, they may also require their own mental health supports.  “We must not forget the caretakers’ needs,” she says.

*Taking care of Dad in America has never been more difficult, and a series of vignettes by Erin Scheffels analyzes and deconstructs cultural communication practices that constitute the concept of mental illness and the “depressed caregiver” reliant on drugs to maintain normalcy and worth as a laborer.

“These studies challenge the current diagnostic system and its focus on symptoms and biology,” says Bartesaghi. “The accounts reframe experiences from a personal perspective, describing their discomfort with stigma, society’s unspoken expectations, and the modern mental health system.”

  The University of South Florida is a high-impact, global research university dedicated to student success. USF is a Top 50 research university among both public and private institutions nationwide in total research expenditures, according to the National Science Foundation. Serving nearly 48,000 students, the USF System has an annual budget of $1.5 billion and an annual economic impact of $4.4 billion. USF is a member of the American Athletic Conference.