Tuesday, July 26, 2011

I'm writing an OpEd, and here's the beginning.

For my advanced writing class (the last one before graduation, hooray!) I've chosen to do a research project on mental illness and its treatment in developing countries. Here's the first bit. I'll probably post the whole thing, with revisions, of course, as I go along. I'd be interested in any feedback, research leads (props to my friend William for a great one earlier today), general commentary... Here goes nothing.

"The first time I met Djarri, I knew there was something different about her. Unlike the other girls of Sanaar Peul, a village on the outskirts of Saint-Louis, Senegal, whose hair wasneatly plaited in tight rows, Djarri’s was a tangled mess full of Sahel sand and bits of straw and, as we learned later, lice. She clambered for attention and threw herself on my – yes, American – friends and I, as we seemed to be the only people in Sanaar Peul who smiled at or tried to engage with her as she prattled on in her native Pulaar, the only language she spoke, never having attended elementary school, taught in French. She often lashed out at the other children of the village, who warned us, “Elle est folle!” They pointed their index fingers, thumbs extended, to their temples and twisted them away with a flick of the wrist: what we quickly came to know as the Senegalese sign for ‘crazy.’ Goading Djarri on to violent outbursts appeared to be a favorite pastime of the children’s, and they often paid for it with a sharp blow to the head or shoulder of surprising force for such a young girl, always accompanied by a fit of laughter.

I never learned exactly what was ‘wrong’ with Djarri, but I suspect her village didn’t either, and probably didn’t have the resources to diagnose, let alone treat, whatever psychological disorder she suffered from. Memories of Djarri and other victims of diseases like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, however, have stayed with me since my return to the so-called ‘developed’ world. What could be done, I wondered, for these individuals whose suffering had so deeply marked me? The interplay between culture and medicine becomes especially tricky when it comes to mental health – that much became clear in the five short weeks I spent in Senegal. Further, even if we can find culturally appropriate ways to deal with mental illnesses in developing countries, the initiatives we push for have to be sustainable, a word that has become so fashionable in development circles for very good reasons. In civil society as well as in academic circles, aid for individuals with disabilities – physical and psychological – is so commonly seen as a luxury poorer countries simply can’t afford. And finally, how can ‘development stakeholders’ – academic development jargon for ‘any group or individual even remotely involved with the problems of development, be that governments, NGOs, members of civil society, research institutions, etc.’ – generate interest and awareness for the need for mental health care? Does anyone care enough to do anything for the very vulnerable, but from a utilitarian standpoint not very societally useful, mentally handicapped in the developing world?

I'm not out to answer any of these questions directly or fully, but rather raise awareness and push and prod the problem in a context accessible to us plebes (don't mind the alliteration). Most of the dialogue on the issue happens at a pretty stratified level, in academic research groups or lengthy and detailed reports by the World Health Organization, in scholarly journals, etc. Here I'd like to distill some of the central conflicts to help folks like us understand some of the complexities of - and more importantly the value and feasibility of - mental illness treatment in low- and middle-income countries."


  1. Good luck, girl - you have a good start here. If I come across anything relevant, I will for sure let you know.

  2. This looks promising so far. Your writing is captivating, even in the technical parts. If I come across anything else I will let you know. It doesn't sound like you need research hints on the academic end, but I really good at those from my time in the HBLL if you do. Good luck.

  3. Hmm... Good writing, that's very difficult to deny. I'd be interested to see where you take this, as it's a controversial topic. You might consider distinguishing between "mentally ill" and "mentally handicapped," because the latter is relatively easy to define, and the former has a turgid (and sordid) history of diagnosis, definition, and treatment. I would also recommend you to a section in the book "Anatomy of an Epidemic" which includes reference to WHO studies on how adults diagnosed with mental illness actually recovered far better over time in developing countries than in so-called "first world" countries.
    Good luck. Sorry if I came across as pedantic in this comment. I'm excited to see where you take this.