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Archive for the ‘Mental Illness’ Category

Bad Boys or Bad Science

Posted by dlende on October 11, 2008

So here’s a recent New Scientist title: “Bad Boys Can Blame Their Behaviour on Hormones.”

All I can think is: New Scientist, Old School. Old, as in nature-nurture old and biological determinism old. Old as in moldy, rusted, failing ideas old.

But it’s not just New Scientist. Discover matches New Scientist with, “Teenage Hoodlums Can Blame Bad Behavior on Hormones.” And The Daily Mail delivers “Now Teenage Thugs Can Blame Their Hormones for Bad Behaviour.”

So what’s the problem? Well, it’s two-fold. First are journalists playing out a cultural script just like they subscribe to old-school cultural determinism. And second is some bad research that, not coincidentally, helps the journalists act like cultural automatons.

The cultural model goes like this: stereotypes, then blame, then biology. Take a stereotype we fear (“we” meaning journalists and readers alike). Bring in the politics and ideology of blame – hey, there’s a reason they are not like us, and why they threaten us. Invoke a cause, generally biological (though cultural causes come up too), outside of our particular realm of control. Hormones, nothing we can do about that, it means they were bad from the get-go. So we’re right to fear them and better make sure they don’t hurt us, whatever it takes.

Don’t believe me? Just look at the photos that accompany the articles. At the Daily Mail, a hooded guy point his hand like a gun at us the reader. Over at Discover, a crazed man with a clenched fist yells in our faces.

We all know journalists will play to stereotypes and will get research wrong and so forth. But in this case, like in most of the biologically-oriented research about complex human phenomena, the research only feeds into journalists typing out the normal crap.

The article in question is “Cortisol Diurnal Rhythm and Stress Reactivity in Male Adolescents with Early-Onset or Adolescence-Onset Conduct Disorder” (full access) by Graeme Fairchild, Stephanie van Goozen et al. and appears in the October 2008 issue of Biological Psychiatry. Neurocritic gives us the overview of the article if you don’t want to read the whole thing. (While I liked the Bad Boys music, I could have done with some more criticism in this particular Neurocritic post – but that’s okay, I’m going to play the bad boy this time.) Here’s the popular take from New Scientist on the article:

Out-of-control boys facing spells in detention or anti-social behaviour orders can now blame it all on their hormones. The “stress hormone” cortisol – or low levels of it – may be responsible for male aggressive antisocial behaviour, according to new research. The work suggests that the hormone may restrain aggression in stressful situations. Researchers found that levels of cortisol fell when delinquent boys played a stressful video game, the opposite of what was seen in control volunteers playing the same game.

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Posted in Brain Mechanisms, Developmental psychology, Mental Illness, Psychological anthropology, Violence | Tagged: , | 14 Comments »

Ethos: Cultural Politics of Mental Health in Native North America

Posted by dlende on October 2, 2008

I thought this would interest some of you.  Here’s the link to the online version. And for more info on Ethos, including the links to an entire issue on Jerome Bruner, just click here. Or check out the editorial office.

To view an online version of this email, click here.
Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology

Ethos presents a special collection:

Cultural Politics of Mental Health in
Native North America

Guest Editor: Joseph P. Gone

The September issue of Ethos includes a remarkable collection of articles on the contradictions and conflicts that arise in mental health counseling involving majority culture counselors and Native Americans. Articles featured in this collection include:

Introduction: Mental Health Discourse as Western Cultural Proselytization
Joseph P. Gone

Discourses of Stress, Social Inequities, and the Everyday Worlds of First Nations Women in a Remote Northern Canadian Community
Naomi Adelson

Clinical Paradigm Clashes: Ethnocentric and Political Barriers to Native American Efforts at Self-Healing
Joseph D. Calabrese

Sobriety and Its Cultural Politics: An Ethnographer’s Perspective on Culturally Appropriate Addiction Services in Native North America
Erica Prussing

Commentary: The Problem of Mental Health in Native North America: Liberalism, Multiculturalism, and the (Non)Efficacy of Tears
Audra Simpson

Commentary: No Itinerant Researchers Tolerated: Principled and Ethical Perspectives and Research with North American Indian Communities
Joseph E. Trimble  

About Ethos
Ethos is an interdisciplinary and international journal devoted to publishing scholarly articles exploring interrelationships between the individual and the sociocultural milieu, between the psychological disciplines and the social disciplines.

Printing four times a year, Ethos is the journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology and is published in partnership with the American Anthropological Association. The journal is one of more than 20 publications featured in AnthroSource, a service of the American Anthropological Association.

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Posted in Mental Illness, Psychological anthropology | Leave a Comment »

Psychiatry affects human psychology: e.g., ‘bipolar’ children

Posted by gregdowney on July 24, 2008

Prof. Joseph Biederman, MD

Prof. Joseph Biederman, MD

Although I really enjoy psychology, like many anthropologists, I feel a deep ambivalence about some contemporary psychological theory and research.

Some of these problems are trivial and tendentious, to be honest, more the effects of pushing our own disciplinary preferences in the way research is presented or semiotic hair-splitting in theoretical terms than substantive concerns. But there are some more profound issues, touched on in recent posts like Daniel’s Neurotosh, Neurodosh and Neurodash and my post, Bench and couch: genetics and psychiatry. Ironically, I was reminded of one of the more serious issues while reading a piece a few weeks ago by psychologist and psychologist-sceptic Bruce Levine on Alternet, The Science of Happiness: Is It All Bullshit?

In a meandering way, this post is a reflection on one of anthropology’s consistent criticisms of psychology; the often unacknowledged role of psychiatry in shaping psyches. That is, the difficulty of studying a phenomenon when one is helping to create it and one’s theories influence your subjects’ accounts. When psychology is successful in breaking through into popular awareness, it becomes entangled with its subject, a kind of folk theory operating in the same space that psychologists seek to study. So this post is a kind of neuroanthropological reflection on clinical psychology as both research enterprise and world-making project, and the way the two come into conflict.

Specifically, Daniel’s post on Neurotosh and Levine’s story of John Stewart confronting Harvard happiness researcher, Prof. Tal Ben-Shahar, reminded me of the recent scandal surrounding psychiatrist Prof. Joseph Biederman. Biederman took large unreported consulting fees from pharmaceutical companies who manufactured anti-psychotic medicines while he was simultaneously encouraging psychiatrists to diagnose children with bipolar disorder, and then to prescribe their young patients anti-psychotic medicines. Senator Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) held hearings on the financial conflicts of interest as reported in The New York Times in Researchers Fail to Reveal Full Drug Pay, by Gardiner Harris and Benedict Carey. (For an earlier critical article, see the Boston Globe piece, Backlash on bipolar diagnoses in children.)

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Posted in Neural plasticity, Psychological anthropology, general, Medical anthropology, Mental Illness | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Neurotosh, Neurodosh and Neurodash

Posted by dlende on July 24, 2008

Neurotosh. The best word from the entire Montreal Critical Neurosciences conference! There was Cordelia Fine, capturing perfectly her frustration at the manipulation of data and science in the service of stereotypes. Just pure neuro-nonsense.

The neurotosh in question was Louann Brizendine’s The Female Brain, an excellent representative of the neurosexism sold in recent popular books. It is popular, a bestseller translated into many languages, and it is simply bad science. In Nature Rebecca Young and Evan Balaban describe the book as “dressing the [gender] myth up in new clothes” and selling a “melodrama,” noting that “The Female Brain disappointingly fails to meet even the most basic standards of scientific accuracy and balance.”

Cordelia Fine took us step-by-step through several passages, examining the supposed citations and supporting evidence. Gender differences were confirmed by (a) studies with only women, (b) studies on a different topic entirely, and (c) personal communication. Ouch.

Plenty of other people have gotten on the bash-Brizendine-bandwagon, helping to undermine the moral authority that Dr. Brizendine wields through her academic credentials and “scientific” claims. Language Log has several critical analyses of the gender difference claims about language (see here, here and here). Mother Jones takes Brizendine to task on her approach to medicine. The most popular Amazon reviews of the book lead with titles calling The Female Brain disappointing” and “nonsensical.” Vaughan Bell at Mind Hacks gets in on the pile-on-party as well.

Still Simon Cohn, a British anthropologist at the meeting, was rather nonplussed at Cordelia’s agonizing over the data and methods and claims made by Brizendine. As Simon said to me, “It’s called ‘The Female Brain.’ Doesn’t that tell you everything right from the start?” His point was that knowledge gets turned in the service of ideology and profit and power all the time.

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Posted in general, Medical anthropology, Mental Illness, Politics | 16 Comments »

Bench and couch: genetics and psychiatry

Posted by gregdowney on July 19, 2008

Vaughn at Mind Hacks has a nice piece on recent research, reported in Nature, on psychiatric genetics: Mental illness: in with the intron crowd. The original article, Psychiatric genetics: The brains of the family, appeared in Nature on 10 July (but it’s behind a subscription wall if you want to see the original — sorry). Daniel linked to Vaughn’s article in the last Wednesday Round Up (#20), but I wanted to make a further brief comment. Vaughn does a really nice job of laying out the key issues, so I’d recommend jumping over there if this brief discussion whets your appetite.

The problem for neuropsychiatry is that genetic links to psychiatric disorders are proving difficult to clearly define. Abbott explains the situation really well:

Finding genes involved in psychiatric conditions is proving to be particularly intractable because it is still unclear whether the various diagnoses are actually separate diseases with distinct underlying genetics or whether… they will dissolve under the genetic spotlight into one biological continuum. Indeed, some researchers suggest that it would be better to abandon conventional clinical definitions and focus instead on ‘intermediate phenotypes’, quantifiable characteristics such as brain structure, wiring and function that are midway between the risk genes involved and the psychopathology displayed.

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Posted in Genetics, Mental Illness | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Cultural Aspects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Thinking on Meaning and Risk

Posted by epfinley on June 4, 2008

Over the past year and a half, I have been conducting research among male U.S. veterans who have served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, most of whom have been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). An anthropologist myself, I planned to follow the trail originally blazed by Victor Frankl and Robert Jay Lifton, psychotherapists who wrote a great deal about meaning in their descriptions of trauma and PTSD.

Early on, however, a psychiatrist whose work on trauma I admire opined to me that crises of meaning belong to the realm of depression rather than PTSD. He suggested that combat PTSD was best thought of as the physiological effects of living under conditions of extreme stress, while more meaning-related struggles were best understood as a symptom of depression. Given the frequency of comorbidity between PTSD and depression, I was for some time inclined to go along with his analysis.

Then two things happened. First, I began the work of talking with veterans themselves about their stories of trauma and PTSD, listening to how they describe their own experiences. And second, I began to explore the increasingly dominant Prolonged Exposure model of PTSD, which views the disorder as a pathology that develops when individuals fail to process their traumatic memories in the normal way.

Some background is important here. A recent RAND report suggests that as many as 18.5% of combat troops have gone on to develop PTSD after serving in Iraq or Afghanistan; alarming as that number is, it nonetheless demonstrates that the vast majority of combat-exposed individuals do not develop PTSD. However, most of the veterans I’ve spoken with – even those without a formal PTSD diagnosis – report experiencing some PTSD symptoms for a period of time following their combat deployment. Many of them dealt with such symptoms for a while – a month, three months, a year – before passing through this period of processing their memories and going on with their lives. They may be changed by their experiences in the war zone, but they are not broken by them, and may even describe them as resulting in personal growth and other positive effects.

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Posted in Mental Illness, Psychological anthropology, Stress, Violence | 29 Comments »

Lessons from sarcasm (so useful…)

Posted by gregdowney on June 3, 2008

The New York Times ran a story on brain imaging studies of sarcasm, The Science of Sarcasm (Not That You Care), by Dan Hurley. That’s right — that favourite rhetorical tool of the snarky adolescent has been subjected to brain imaging studies. The Pearson Assessment video — of an actor delivering the same lines twice, once sincerely, and once dripping sarcasm — is fun. I found myself thinking that I could have been MORE sarcastic.

Hurley, the author of the NYTimes article, does a pretty good job of explaining things, although I think that the idea that perceiving sarcasm requires a ‘theory of mind,’ alluded to in the article, is a bit of a problem — but I have that issue with a lot of the ‘theory of mind’ material because I think it ‘over-cognizes’ social perception (that’s my own issue, so I won’t dwell on it). Hurley discusses the research of Katherine P. Rankin, using MRI scans and the Awareness of Social Inference Test, or Tasit. I have looked on the website for the Memory and Aging Center of UCSF, and through PubMed and EurekAlert, but I can’t find the original report on this research (please post a comment if you know where it is).

“I was testing people’s ability to detect sarcasm based entirely on paralinguistic cues, the manner of expression,” Dr. Rankin said. What seems particularly interesting is that the part of the brain which seemed to be linked to sarcasm — damage to it by dementia impeded the ability to recognize sarcasm — was in the right hemisphere, not usually associated with language or social interaction (which are generally associated with the left hemisphere). Instead, sarcasm seemed to require activity in ‘a part of the right hemisphere previously identified as important only to detecting contextual background changes in visual tests.’

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Posted in Brain imaging, Mental Illness, Perception and the senses | 4 Comments »

Mad Pride

Posted by dlende on May 11, 2008

“Mad Pride” Fights A Stigma by Gabrielle Glaser reports on the frank talk, public exposure, and anti-stigma efforts of people who experience “extreme mental states.” Books like Kay Redfield Jamison’s autobiography of bipolar disorder An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness and movies like A Beautiful Mind on the mathematician John Nash’s schizophrenia have brought mental illness further into the public light. Now a grass-roots movement is going further: “these advocates proudly call themselves mad; they say their conditions do not preclude them from productive lives.”

It is a diverse movement, centered on anti-stigma efforts, on quality of life, and on treatment options.

Members of the mad pride movement do not always agree on their aims and intentions. For some, the objective is to continue the destigmatization of mental illness. A vocal, controversial wing rejects the need to treat mental afflictions with psychotropic drugs and seeks alternatives to the shifting, often inconsistent care offered by the medical establishment. Many members of the movement say they are publicly discussing their own struggles to help those with similar conditions and to inform the general public.

Themes such as creating “a new language that resonated with our actual experiences,” better public and medical recognition of the nature of their problems, and being given the same sorts of leeway and freedoms that “normal” people enjoy are what drive the “mad pride” movement. They are at once post-conventional due to their extreme mental states, with behaviors and subjective experiences that society would rather not see (social denial), and want to express themselves and have others understand–such a basic human desire.

Liz Spikol, a bipolar writer in Philadelphia, is one of the emerging voices through her blog at the Philadelphia Weekly and YouTube videos (“trouble spikol” is a good search term). Here’s one to watch.

Posted in Mental Illness | Leave a Comment »

It’s Our Fault: Denial, Disease and Addiction

Posted by dlende on May 8, 2008

By Danny Smith, Jimmy Wilson, Will Yeatman, Rachel Guerrera, and Mark Hinken

It’s our fault. But let’s spread the blame. The burden also lies on the shoulders of the educational community. And society itself. There is a serious misconception that exists. This misconception is that chemical dependence is not a disease. By not recognizing chemical dependence as a disease, society continues to hold harmful stereotypes about alcoholism and drug addiction.

The goal of this blog post is to address this major problem facing drug addicts and alcoholics. Society enables chemical dependence by causing denial. Denial helps create a vicious cycle that traps addicts. They tell themselves they do not have a problem and reject the idea to others that a problem exists.

However, denial is not just prevalent in cases of chemical reliance. It is common in everyday life, seen in issues concerning body image, gambling, sex and social interaction. In these cases, like addiction, denial stems from the social stigmas produced by society.

In today’s culture having a slim and fit body is heavily desired and expected. People who do not conform to the lofty standards set by models and Hollywood elite often feel abnormal and subject to ridicule. As a consequence anorexia, bulimia and dysmorphia have become more common among the current population. However, though these three eating disorders are labeled as real diseases, they are viewed as taboo in society. Therefore, people who suffer from anorexia often deny to others or even themselves that they really have a problem with a serious disease.

US society does not often pair diseases such as anorexia and alcoholism with diseases like cancer and Parkinson’s disease. Yet they are all chronic diseases. If the United States came to view chemical dependence with the same empathy as cancer, we could help eliminate the destructive low self-esteem and denial found in chemically reliant individuals.
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Posted in Addiction, Medical anthropology, Mental Illness, Psychological anthropology | 7 Comments »

‘Psychological kevlar’ and the burden of remembering war

Posted by gregdowney on May 4, 2008

I just read a fascinating piece by Clayton Dach, America’s Chemically Modified 21st Century Soldiers, on Alternet. Although there’s a sense in which Mr. Dach jumps to some of the worst possible outcomes when he looks at technology in the pipeline, on the whole, it’s a pretty well thought and concerned-but-not-hysterical account of some of the technology being brought to bear on soldiers, including the possibility of removing humans further from the ‘loop’ in combat decisions. I’m less interested with the latter — the robot warriors angle — not only because I think it’s been done better in science fiction movies, but also because I think it’s simply a more remote technology than some of the pharmaceutical work he discusses.

In particular, I found the discussion of ‘psychological kevlar’ to be interesting for neuroanthropology:

In the U.S., where roughly two-fifths of troops returning from combat deployments are presenting serious mental health problems, PTSD has gone political in form of the Psychological Kevlar Act, which would direct the Secretary of Defense to implement “preventive and early-intervention measures” to protect troops against “stress-related psychopathologies.”

Proponents of the “Psychological Kevlar” approach to PTSD may have found a silver bullet in the form of propranolol, a 50-year-old beta-blocker used on-label to treat high blood pressure, and off-label as a stress-buster for performers and exam-takers. Ongoing psychiatric research has intriguingly suggested that a dose of propranolol, taken soon after a harrowing event, can suppress the victim’s stress response and effectively block the physiological process that makes certain memories intense and intrusive. That the drug is cheap and well tolerated is icing on the cake.

With PTSD so prevalent among soldiers, can it be better treated, even if that means blocking the formation of traumatic memories? Daniel did a piece on PTSD rates in soldiers in April, Invisible Wounds of War, and he discussed a RAND Corporation estimate that treatment of soldiers with PTSD would cost ‘6.2 billion dollars in the first two years after returning from deployment.’ (Daniel also provided links to a number of articles on Iraq and its psychological effects in Wednesday Round Up #7.) The potential to use drugs to stop the development of PTSD, even if it also blocks normal memory formation, raises a number of ethical and moral questions as well as some interesting neuroanthropological ones.

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Posted in Medical anthropology, Mental Illness, Stress | 3 Comments »


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