Is mental health a smoke screen for society’s ills?

Somatosphere has a fantastic account of the debates rocking the world of global mental health – the still nascent field that aims to make mental health a world priority.

The idea itself is sound in the general sense, but there is still a lot of argument about what it means to promote mental health and much discussion about whether ‘global mental health’ is just a means of exporting Western ideas and diagnoses in a sort of 21st century globalisation of the mind.

I am always a little struck by the fact that the ‘global mental health’ movement seems mainly to focus on Asia and Africa.

For example, the lack of participation of Latin American mental health professionals and advocates is striking in both the headline-making publications and the key conferences.

This is a pity as Latin America has developed a unique perspective on mental health that, by reading the debates covered by Somatosphere, would be very relevant.

If you want to get your head into the space of this particular Latin American approach, have a think about this analogy.

How would you react if instead of supporting the American civil rights movement in the 1960s, you were told the major problem was that people were being affected by a mental illness called ‘post-discrimination stress disorder’?

I’m sure it would be possible to come up with a valid and reliable ‘PDSD’ diagnosis that could be agreed upon and would genuinely predict behavioural and psychological distress and impairment – the experience of racism is known to predict mental health problems and the discrimination of the civil rights era was extreme.

Arguing for more resources to be put into treating ‘post-discrimination stress disorder’ when the civil rights movement was almost at breaking point in the 1940s and 50 would lay you open to accusations of ‘putting up a smoke screen’ and ‘making a distraction’ when what was needed was social change, not an attempt to pathologise black people.

The question that you may be asking, and many Latin American psychologists have asked, is whether we should be instead focussing on inequality and violence to improve mental health.

The Western focus on disorders, they argue, can distract and blind us to societal problems. Instead of preventing oppression, we pathologise its victims.

This approach was born out of a field called liberation psychology that made exactly this point.

One of the founders was a remarkable chap called Ignacio Martín-Baró who was a Spanish priest who trained as a psychologist and worked in El Salvador during the Salvadoran civil war.

He was eventually murdered by a government death squad because of his theories, which at least shows their power if not their popularity.

Unfortunately, liberation psychology has become heavily politicised and you often hear variations of “Martín-Baró’s work means you must support my left-wing views” from proponents.

This is a shame because Martín-Baró’s work was often making a more profound and over-arching point – that there is no such thing as an apolitical act in mental health, and, indeed, in health care in general.

For example, the West’s understanding of the victims of war, torture and displacement in terms of PTSD and other diagnostic labels is largely due to the experience of treating refugees who have fled these horrible situations.

In this context, PTSD makes sense in the West because it has the implicit assumption that the person is now safe (after all, it’s post-traumatic stress disorder) and that the experiences and reactions described in the diagnosis are, therefore, inappropriate.

However, if you live in a war zone, intrusive thoughts, feeling on edge and avoiding reminders of danger could be considered quite a reasonable reaction to the constant experience of death and violence.

When you meet people who do live in war zones, who would clearly meet the criteria for PTSD, they rarely complain about their mental state. They’re usually more concerned about the actual dangers.

They’re concerned about torture, not intrusive thoughts about being tortured – the threat of rape, not rape-related anxiety.

So, the hard question becomes: are we really helping by sending professionals and training locals to recognise and treat people with, for example, PTSD?

And this is where Martín-Baró drew his inspiration from. The way we understand and treat mental health problems, he argued, is always political. There is no absolute neutrality in how we understand distress and those that think so are usually just blind to their own biases.

And this is what the global mental health movement is wrestling with. And needless to say, there are plenty of biases to overcome.

Big Pharma pushes theories as adverts for its medication. Western mental health professionals can see themselves as healers of people who don’t necessarily need healing.

Researchers see an untapped gold mine of data and local scientists see a way out of what seems like a limiting and unglamorous academic life distant from the shining lights of Northern Hemisphere High Science.

So when we talk about ‘mental health literacy’ are we talking education or propaganda? It’s not an easy question to answer or, for many, to even think about.

The Somatosphere piece is one of the best guides to this debate I’ve yet read. Essential reading.

Link to Somatosphere on ‘Global Mental Health and its Discontents’

12 thoughts on “Is mental health a smoke screen for society’s ills?”

    1. Hi there, We have no problems with people reposting our stuff as long as the piece clearly says where the original came from and links back to the original piece.

  1. Excellent article, exactly what Ive been saying for years, your sick!! take this!!, and shut up, or well incarcerate you longer,maybe indefinately, poison you more, and call you more nasty names,until your that broken down, you’ll take your (our) poison and your (our) diagnosis whether you want to or not.Why?, Because your sick, and we are morally obligated to have to drug you, care for you, because we have to manage “your mental illness” do you get that,? yes sir! , three bags full sir!!. Don’t forget according to psychiatry 50% of us are mad anyway, well we will be at some stage in our lives, why not now!! Don’t wait until tomorrow , come on down, have we got an illness for you. on sale this week, bipolar, psychosis,and anxiety, 50% discount.:)

  2. I liked the sound of Martin-Baro’s multifaceted approach. Now it seems to have been morphed by Western medicine into a way to dehumanize “test subjects”. Pity without respect is all too common.

    Maybe these “professionals” should be required to spend 6 months living in the conditions of their patients before they’re permitted to treat or study them.

  3. Excellent viewpoint. You would think that it almost a ‘no-brainer’ and it is typical of Western society to continue to research material/technological solutions to social issues.

  4. Following up on your example of civil rights and PTSD, I recommend Johathan Metzl’s book ‘The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease.’ Was it ‘normal’ to be angry during civil rights protests in the US? If you were a black man, being angry got you a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

  5. Excellent post… I’ve often marveled that we (West) often fail to recognize reactionary distress… everything is, as the Wikipedia article on liberation psychology suggests, seen as “intrapsychic”…

    This is what I find so discouraging about most mental health treatments… Band-Aid individualistic solutions to what is often a societal or environmental problems.

  6. Thank you for this article. I’m from El Salvador and I studied at the university where Martín-Baró developed most of his work (and where he also, sadly, was murdered in 1989). Learning this “psychosocial trauma” approach developed in Latin America is a huge turning point for most students.

    Despite having a lot to say from our own experience, there is indeed a lack of participation of Latin American psychologists. In the case of my country, institutions and decision-makers lack resources and interest in fostering mental health, let alone supporting professionals for research, publication and intervention; above all, the political origin of this perspective is a delicate subject that touches some nasty wounds. I’m currently in Chile, also prolific on the subject due to nearly two decades of dictatorship. There’s more interest and more resources but in the end, commiting to this approach requires highly critical thinking of the system and of one’s own professional practice, and most importantly, it requires taking sides (even being neutral is taking a side, implicitly). Not an easy task.

    I reposted this article in my psych blog with a link back (; free translation, since the readers speak spanish). Thanks again for this post!

  7. Unfortunately, we are in general terms very far from mental health, even when people are supposedly treated by following various theories and having medicine that simply transforms them into vegetables without personality.

    We cannot even clearly define the meaning of ‘mental health’ because the mindset of the absurd modern civilization disregards serious indications of mental illnesses, besides disregarding the tragic situation of those who live under unbearable life conditions. They can only become mentally ill, since their life is a hell.

    This means that the problem is even worse than what it seems to be when you pay attention only to what happens with the financial support that should help the mentally ill, but is spent in a different way.

  8. well call me slow but from this article I could not figure if the authors view was that Mental Illness is or is not a smoke screen for ones ills.

    If the author of this article thinks it is then you should here my story and maybe the author would change their tune.


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