On 17 July, The Lancet Psychiatry journal tweeted a link to a new position paper on "how #mentalhealth care should change as a consequence of the #COVID19 pandemic". The tweet contained a lofty premise: "The interconnectedness of the world made society vulnerable to this infection, but it also provides the infrastructure to address previous system failings."
The paper was co-authored by a huge number of researchers – 25 of them. And therein lay the problem: this so-called "international" group offering an ostensibly "global" roadmap for mental health care in response to the pandemic was almost entirely made up of researchers from rich North American and European countries, with no representation from Asian or African low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).
The tweet saw immediate backlash, prompting Nev Jones, one of the co-authors, to acknowledge that "this is a powerful example of how deeply entrenched systems of exclusion become".
The episode once again exposed a thinly veiled secret of the global mental health ecosystem: that every now and then, it reinforces power structures that are the opposite of "global".
Just a few days after The Lancet’s faux pas, the International Association for Suicide Prevention announced a webinar on "suicide research priorities during the Covid pandemic". The five speakers included two from the UK, and one each from Ireland, Austria and Australia, seemingly whitewashing the fact that LMICs account for 79% of the world’s suicides.
There’s more. Earlier in the year, another "international group" of mental health professionals had released an open letter advocating the need for reform and revision of diagnosis in psychiatry. I had then pointed out that it’s a bit silly to call an almost 100% US American and British group "international" – especially since the letter itself talked a big game about the importance of "culture" and "context" in mental health.
The Society for Humanistic Psychology, part of the American Psychology Association, had replied to me thus: "Yes, we agree that this is a vital concern, and we will be making efforts to expand our task force to include more people with lived experience and non-western voices." I am waiting to hear from them about these "efforts".
This tendency to take the view of a narrow sliver of the world and project it as "global" goes beyond just mental health and pervades all of psychology and social sciences research, where it is known by a fitting term: WEIRD.
Why you may not want to take that ‘pathbreaking’ research paper too seriously
Last year, I took a Coursera course titled Introduction to psychology by Canadian psychology professor Steve Joordens (the only online course that I’ve paid for AND completed). Among all the cool stuff I learnt was that delightful acronym – WEIRD – used to refer to a fatal flaw in the kind of psychology research that makes it into textbooks all over:
W - western
E - educated
I - industrialised
R - rich
D - democratic
WEIRD describes the participant pool that much of psychology and social sciences research in the west draws from. "And not only are they WEIRD, they are overwhelmingly college students in the US participating in studies for class credit," writes US American science journalist Bethany Brookshire. "WEIRD subjects, from countries that represent only about 12% of the world’s population, differ from other populations in moral decision making, reasoning style, fairness, even things like visual perception. This is because a lot of these behaviours and perceptions are based on the environments and contexts in which we grew up."
So if you come across a fascinating study proving that semen is an effective antidepressant or that men are funnier than women, stop and ponder, urges Brookshire. "Is that study WEIRDly made up of college psychology students?"
One of the solutions to stop the silencing of voices from the global south came from Filipino physician Renzo Guinto: whether it’s mental health or #COVID19 or gender, LMIC scholar-practitioners will often be left out of “international” collaborations, he said. "Hence, we must step up and establish collaborations on our own."
Do you believe Guinto’s suggestion can help us get rid of the west’s hegemony in the mental health and psychology/psychiatry ecosystem? Are you aware of any such transformative collaborations between scholars and practitioners rooted in the global south? Do let me know so we can spread the word.
Until next week.