This special issue of Transcultural Psychiatry explores the under-examined roots of Western psychotherapy, complicating the idea that it is, in the words of the issue organizers, “exclusively…a modern phenomenon.”
“Other psychotherapies”: Healing interactions across time, geography, and culture (open access)
Ross G. White, Cheryl McGeachan, Gavin Miller, Sophia Xenophontos
This article introduces the special issue of Transcultural Psychiatry entitled “Other Psychotherapies”: Healing Interactions across Time, Geographies, and Cultures. This special issue is intended to highlight that, rather than being exclusively a modern phenomenon, variants of psychotherapeutic practice have existed for millennia in diverse sociocultural contexts. This article explores the historical development of Western psychotherapy and points to the important contribution that Greco-Roman scholars from antiquity made to contemporary understandings of mental states and emotional wellbeing. The ways in which healing interactions have been localized to reflect the local cultural and geographic contexts are also highlighted through a discussion of recent work in psychotherapeutic geographies. This allows us to identify commonalities and differences between various forms of psychotherapy. We also consider how particular subcultures may influence the future development of psychotherapy. This article serves to foreshadow the themes that are explored in more detail in the collection of articles that make up the “Other Psychotherapies” special issue. The various articles that contribute to the special issue are introduced, and the key issues explored by these articles briefly highlighted. The intention of the special issue is to facilitate an opportunity to appreciate the ways in which psychotherapies are a product of the epoch, setting, and institutions that shape people’s lives.
One of the most distinctive aspects of contemporary psychiatry is its firm grounding in a neurological and biochemical framework for the interpretation of mental life and its disturbances. In the absence of any strong neurological understanding or systematic knowledge of active pharmaceutical substances, one might expect that early ancient medicine readily resorted to non-somatic approaches to healing mental suffering. Instead, what is usually labelled “therapy of the word” and other forms of what one may call psychotherapy emerge relatively late in Greek medicine, only in the first centuries of our era. This paper provides an overview and analysis of this development in ancient history of psychology, philosophy and medicine, covering a broad period of time from the fifth century BCE to the end of the late-antique period, the fifth century CE. The focus is on the very idea (or lack thereof) of the curability of mental disturbance, and on the particular branch of therapeutics which addresses the psychological and existential condition of the patient, rather than his or her physiological state.
It is often suggested that the Greek tragedians present clinically credible pictures of mental disturbance. For instance, some modern interpreters have compared the process by which Cadmus brings Agave back to sanity in Euripides’ Bacchae with modern psychotherapy. But a reading of medical writers’ views on the psychological dimension of medicine offers little evidence for believing that these scenes reflect the practices of late fifth-century Athenian doctors, for whom verbal cures are associated with older traditions of non-rational thought, and thus are scorned in favor of more “scientific cures” based on diet or medication. This paper will argue that Athenian tragedians, working from older traditions that advocated verbal cures for some mental ailments, do understand the potential psychological effects that their work can have on audiences, since tragedy requires psychological interaction with its audience in order to be effective. From a close reading of select scenes in Euripidean tragedy, this paper suggests that the experiences of the characters who experience suffering in Euripides’ Heracles and Bacchae are analogues of the experiences undergone by the spectators of tragedy at large. Parallels are made between the way that Agave and Heracles are both talked back to sanity by looking upon what has happened, and the way that tragedians make their audiences observe lamentations and meditations that follow the central tragic act, to help them return from the intense emotion provoked, perhaps, by the violence they have seen.
Although Islam is the world’s second-largest religion, there continues to be misconceptions and an overall lack of awareness regarding the religious and social worlds that make up the global Muslim community. This is particularly concerning when examining notions of mental ill-health, where a lack of cultural awareness, understanding, and sensitivity can impede adequate treatment. As a global religion, Islam is practiced within various cultural milieus, and, given the centrality of faith amongst Muslim communities, a conflation of religion and culture can occur when attempting to understand mental health paradigms. Whilst much of the discourse regarding Muslim mental health centres on cultural formulations, this article discusses how, historically, conceptualisations relating to medicine and mental health were ensconced within the particular medical paradigm of the day. Specifically, it considers the frameworks within which mental health and illness were understood within the medieval Muslim medical tradition and their relevance to contemporary debates in psychology and psychiatry. In sum, this paper seeks to demonstrate that cultural formulations of mental illness, often viewed as “Islamic”, are distinct from historical Islamic approaches to mental health which employed contemporaneous medical discourse and which act as the reference marker for the emergent revivalist Islamic psychology movement seen today.
This article examines Fischl Schneersohn’s (1887–1958) “science of man” as a psychotherapeutic approach situated between modern psychology and Chassidic mysticism. While almost forgotten today, Schneersohn was a prolific writer, well-known in Yiddish-speaking circles as a psychologist, educationalist, novelist, and psychotherapist. As a descendant of an important dynasty of Chassidic rebbes, he grew up inside the Chabad movement, but followed a secular career. The first part of this article traces Schneersohn’s biography from the outskirts of the Russian empire to Germany, Poland, the United States, and Palestine, and shows how his upbringing and historical experiences shaped his psychological works and his self-understanding as educationalist and psychotherapist. The second part examines Schneersohn’s main work, Studies in Psycho-Expedition, which blended Chassidic mysticism and contemporary psychology in a way that was both idiosyncratic and unique. The psycho-sociological “science of man” was a modern psychological and psychotherapeutic approach, using specific methods to gain knowledge about the human mind, and to counteract and treat mental disorders, neuroses, and nervousness. At the same time, however, it was deeply influenced by Chassidic mysticism; revolving around the assumption of a universal human need for spiritual ecstasy. Schneersohn universalised, secularised, and reframed elements of the Kabbalah as a modern psychotherapy. By examining an almost forgotten psychotherapeutic approach outside the mainstream in its specific historical context, this article contributes to the history of the connection between religion and the psy-disciplines, as well as to ongoing debates about the role of spirituality and ecstasy in psychology and psychotherapy.
Dang-Ki healing: An embodied relational healing practice in Singapore
Boon-Ooi Lee, Laurence J. Kirmayer
This article explores the processes of transformation of the self in dang-ki healing, a form of Chinese spirit mediumship in Singapore, drawing on more than a decade of ethnographic research. In dang-ki healing, it is believed that a deity possesses a human, who is called a dang-ki, to help clients (i.e., devotees). Through the dang-ki, clients can interact with powerful deities in ways that help them feel hopeful and supported. The dang-kis themselves may also benefit therapeutically from their participation as mediums. Many dang-kis suffer from personal conflicts and distress before becoming a medium and they express and transform their distress through the idiom of spirit possession. Since deities represent traits and moral values promoted in Chinese culture, possession by a deity allows the dang-ki to embody an ideal self and to acquire spiritual knowledge by engaging in ritual practices involving cleansing, self-mortification, stereotyped movements, and altered consciousness. At the same time, junior possessing deities must undergo training under the guidance of senior deities to achieve a higher level of spiritual existence by helping clients through the dang-ki’s body. Thus, in dang-ki healing, practitioners, clients and possessing deities are transformed in parallel ways. The dynamics of this reciprocal and interdependent healing process differ from the individualistic approaches in Western psychotherapy and shed light on the links between healing processes, cultural ontologies, and concepts of personhood.
Transcultural psychiatry has increased awareness of alternative approaches to mental health and wellbeing, influencing developments in Western psychotherapeutic treatments. In this article, I look at the recent interest in alternative therapies by the U.S. military, which has explored the possibilities of lucid dreaming in order to help soldiers cope with the adverse mental and emotional effects of combat—commonly referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In this context of concerns about effective rehabilitation and the cost of veteran care, I examine the popular science fiction films Avatar and Inception, which have been discussed in the media as illustrations of the potential use of lucid dreaming and digitally created virtual worlds to “heal” the minds of soldiers affected by modern warfare. In these media portrayals, psychology and science fiction come together to envision and promote human-machine fantasies of the endlessly salvageable and, therefore ultimately, invincible American soldier.