Graham School News

Alida Bouris’s MLA Class on Our Shifting Definitions of Mental Health and Mental Illness

Alida Bouris

As an Associate Professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration (SSA), Alida Bouris’s research focuses on the relationship between social context and health with the goal of developing effective ways to leverage the strengths of families and other supportive persons in the lives of young people. She teaches courses on social work practice, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and queer theory and, in 2013, was the recipient of the William Pollak Award for Excellence in Teaching.

“In social work, the goal is to merge theory and practice in order to work directly with individuals, families, and groups,” she says. “SSA takes a very theoretically-grounded approach to teaching social work. The students all intern in agencies where they conduct therapy and case management or program and policy research, while the courses ground them in the research orienting their vocations outside of class.”

For Professor Bouris, successful social work involves a collaborative effort. Together with University of Chicago colleagues, alumni, and students, she is co-director of the Chicago Center for HIV Elimination, a program housed at the UChicago Medical Center that provides resource counseling, community programming, and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment services for adolescents and adults. She and other faculty are also part of the Third Coast Center for AIDS Research, a newly funded research center that facilitates research on HIV/AIDS in order to expedite prevention and treatment services for those populations most affected by HIV/AIDS.

Her decision to become part of the Master of Liberal Arts (MLA) faculty extends her belief in the importance of collaborative work. The MLA program, she says, allows her to teach in a different style and explore important questions in new ways from the approaches she uses teaching her SSA courses. Through looking closely at our shifting conceptions of mental health and mental illness in the discussion-based context of an MLA classroom, new insights into material she has spent her career thinking about can emerge and potentially enhance her engagement with work she does elsewhere.

“I was excited about the opportunity to teach in the MLA program,” she says. “I saw it as an opportunity to push my teaching beyond what I do at SSA. My MLA class is a little more theoretical and open-ended than the typical classes I teach. It’s less focused on developing skills and more involved in fostering discussion around texts that engage the topic of mental health.”

Whereas research, practice, and literature from years past tended to characterize people as mad, insane, or crazy, From Madness to Mental Health explores how more recent works have adopted the philosophy and language of mental health, well-being, and recovery. Despite this amelioration in language, however, Professor Bouris highlights ongoing processes of medicalization and how stigma remains pervasive in the area of mental health, with portrayals in popular culture often dramatizing the potential dangers that people with mental illness pose to the public good.

“One goal of From Madness to Mental Health is to try to define what we mean by ‘mental illness’ and ‘mental health,’” she explains. “Seeing how these definitions are historically, socially, and culturally situated will lead us to new and different understandings not only of these categories, but also of how our private and public responses contribute to constructing those categories. The materials we read and think about in the course draw on a wide range of disciplines, which gives us the widest lens possible to approach these issues.”

Part of what drew Professor Bouris to joining the MLA faculty was precisely this: the potential to broaden the scope and range of questions she pursues in the classroom. By drawing on the fields of psychiatry, sociology, anthropology, social work, and more, she is not only able to push in-class discussions to new areas, she is also able to tap the diverse experiences and worldviews of MLA students.

“MLA students, with their variety of backgrounds, bring all sorts of passions and commitments to the material we cover and discuss in class,” she says. “A lawyer taking the class will have one perspective on the criminal-legal system, while an individual working in mental health or social services will have a significantly different perspective. Bringing those two conversations together can be extremely useful and illuminating when it comes to understanding what we overlook or potentially ignore when forming our ideas about mental health. What’s important as well is how these insights can then be applied to other categories we use when we think about and create policies surrounding social inequality.”