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Alida Bouris Highlights Contextual Factors Underlying Perceptions of Mental Health at Master of Liberal Arts Faculty Spotlight

Alida Bouris

As part of a faculty spotlight, an event hosted by the Graham School’s Master of Liberal Arts (MLA) program, Alida Bouris, Associate Professor at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration (SSA) and MLA faculty member, gave a presentation entitled From Madness to Mental Health on August 3 to an engaged audience at the University of Chicago Gleacher Center.

Ranging across cultures and countries while employing both quantitative and theoretical methods, Professor Bouris’s talk, which also served as a preview for her upcoming Autumn 2017 Master of Liberal Arts course, sought to survey the significant dynamics at play in categorizing, treating, and differentiating between “mental health” and “mental illness.”

In remarks introducing Professor Bouris, who has been at the University since 2009 and whose research assesses how structural inequalities and social-contextual factors are linked to HIV/AIDS and poor mental health, Fred Beuttler, Associate Dean of Liberal Arts at the Graham School, briefly spoke about the Graham School and its history as part of the University of Chicago, noting that its founding mission, as the third oldest extension school in the world after programs at Cambridge and Oxford, has always centered on extending the University community to working professionals in the greater Chicago area and beyond.

In an additional presentation, Tim Murphy, Assistant Director of the Master of Liberal Arts program, went on to offer an overview of the MLA program and its guiding philosophy, calling it an intense and interdisciplinary approach to the liberal arts. “MLA students,” he said, “come from different professions and all walks of life, but the one thing they have in common is that they sit at our table to discuss big ideas. We believe that the most interesting conversations take place when you have people leveraging their diverse life experiences while discussing the big ideas they’ve read about in important books.”

Stating at the outset that a goal of her presentation (as well as her class) would be to gain a critical perspective on what we mean by the terms “mental health” and “mental illness,” Professor Bouris shared recent definitions of these categories offered by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Psychiatric Association, urging those present to offer their insights into the broader implications of these definitions and what they might leave out. Noting how the definitions tended to focus on an abstract individual while eliding differences in individual backgrounds and, perhaps even more importantly, social context, she suggested that such factors served potentially to complicate—while adding nuance and depth to—the more static and clinical pictures captured by the definitions.

“We see in the WHO definition, for instance, that stress is considered a normal part of life,” she said. “Now we know that some people have a genetic predisposition to mental illness, and we also know that exposure to risk factors and access to protective factors over the course of one’s life play a profound role in one’s capacity to live with stress. The same stress, then, will affect different people in different ways, depending on their backgrounds and the access they have to services where they live. Thus, when we look at mental health in terms of who is able to realize their own abilities, we need to keep in mind that things look different for different types of people and populations.”

A critical perspective, Professor Bouris suggested, seeks to identify the presuppositions and hidden assumptions we might have when it comes to identifying and understanding—as everyday citizens, as mental health professionals, and as service users—the categories of health and illness. Further highlighting the role social factors play, Professor Bouris broadened her discussion to include studies that address mental health from a cross-cultural, worldwide perspective.

Drawing on research that seeks to understand the varieties of schizophrenic experience across different cultures, Professor Bouris reviewed a study documenting the range of reactions to auditory hallucinations in subjects in psychiatric care in San Mateo, California, in Accra, Ghana, and in Chennai, India. When patients in San Mateo spoke about hearing voices, she noted, the patients used a very clinical vocabulary to explain that their voices meant they were crazy. They did not like their voices, oftentimes they were afraid of them, whereas in both Accra and Chennai patients described a fondness for their voices and stressed the guidance they gave them in life.

“In Accra, for instance,” Professor Bouris explained, “there was an emphasis on the moral and spiritual quality of the voice, while in Chennai people were much more likely to say their voices were related to them, they were their kin. There was less of the violent content that people in San Mateo shared as being central factors in the experience of hearing their voices. And so one thing that is very interesting that emerges from a study like this,” she added, “is that, typically, from a diagnostic perspective, we think of schizophrenia as something that exists in the world with a very definite shape. It manifests itself with particular symptoms. But when you go to different places in the world, people have different experiences of what it is and they have very different meanings for what their voices signify.”

Such observations broaden and further complicate the original definitions offered on mental health and mental illness by highlighting the societal and contextual factors that contribute to our perception and understanding of those shifting categories. Professor Bouris went on to identify “stigma,” a complicated process entailing social discrediting through shaming and stereotyping, as a key factor relating to a society’s relationship to its discourse on mental health, calling it one of the primary barriers to addressing mental health and achieving our goals.

“In the [From Madness to Mental Health] course,” she said, “we will talk about where stigma comes from, how we understand it, and what we might do to combat it. We’ll see that what becomes very important in work about stigma is understanding it as a social process rooted in social relationships and shaped by the culture and structure of society. It is something that we all participate in, are shaped by, and have the potential to affect.”

The evening concluded with a lively question and answer session during which audience members expressed interest in knowing more about mental health in its social, cultural, and historical context. Noting once again the enormity of the topic of mental health, Professor Bouris reiterated that her class, drawing on materials from a wide range of disciplines—including psychiatry, psychology, sociology, anthropology, law, public health, and social work—would be an optimal way to engage expansively with the topic. The deadline for submitting an application to the Master of Liberal Arts program is September 15, giving everyone plenty of time to enroll.

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The Master of Liberal Arts program (MLA) at the University of Chicago is a degree program designed for working professionals. Our flexible course schedule and campus conveniently located in downtown Chicago make our MLA degree program ideal for adults with busy professional lives. Autumn application deadline is September 15.

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