Public Mental Health Across Cultural Contexts: An Essay on the Ethics of Primary Prevention of Depression, With a Focus on the Dakhla Oasis of Egypt

(Introduction to a chapter I wrote with Rachel Bingham. It will be part of the volume ‘Mental Health as Public Health: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Ethics of Prevention’, edited by Kelso Cratsley and Jennifer Radden.)




For over a decade there has been an active and ambitious movement concerned with reducing the “global burden” of mental disorders in low- and middle-income countries.[1] Global Mental Health, as its proponents call it, aims to close the “treatment gap”, which is defined as the percentage of individuals with serious mental disorders who do not receive any mental health care. According to one estimate, this amounts to 75%, rising in sub-Saharan Africa to 90% (Patel and Prince 2010, p. 1976). In response to this, the movement recommends the “scaling up” of services in these communities in order to develop effective care and treatment for those who are most in need. This recommendation, the movement states, is founded on two things: (1) a wealth of evidence that medications and psychosocial interventions can reduce the disability accrued in virtue of mental disorder, and (2) closing the treatment gap restores the human rights of individuals, as described and recommended in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Patel et al. 2011; Patel and Saxena 2014).

In addition to its concern with treatment, the movement has identified prevention among the “grand challenges” for mental and neurological disorders. It states, among its key goals, the need to identify the “root causes, risk and protective factors” for mental disorders such as “modifiable social and biological risk factors across the life course”. Using this knowledge, the goal is to “advance prevention and implementation of early interventions” by supporting “community environments that promote physical and mental well-being throughout life” and developing “an evidence-based set of primary prevention interventions” (Collins et al. 2011, p. 29). Similar objectives have been raised several years before by the World Health Organisation, who identified evidence-based prevention of mental disorders as a “public health priority” (WHO 2004, p. 15).

Soon after its inception, the movement of Global Mental Health met sustained and substantial critique.[2] Essentially, critics argue that psychiatry has significant problems in the very contexts where it originated and is not a success story that can be enthusiastically transported to the rest of the world.[3] The conceptual, scientific, and anthropological limitations of psychiatry are well known and critics appeal to them in making their case. Conceptually, psychiatry is unable to define ‘mental disorder’, with ongoing debates on the role of values versus facts in distinguishing disorder from its absence.[4] Scientifically, the lack of discrete biological causes, or biomarkers, for major psychiatric conditions has resulted in the reliance on phenomenological and symptomatic classifications. This has led to difficulties in defining with precision the boundaries between disorders, and accusations that psychiatric categories lack validity.[5] Anthropologically, while the categories themselves are associated with tangible and often severe distress and disability, they remain culturally constructed in that they reflect a ‘Western’ cultural psychology (including conceptions of the person and overall worldview).[6] Given this, critics see Global Mental Health as a top-down imposition of ‘Western’ norms of health and ideas of illness on the ‘Global South’, suppressing long-standing cultural ideas and healing practices that reflect entirely different worldviews. It obscures conditions of extreme poverty that exist throughout many non-Western countries, and which underpin the expressions of distress that Global Mental Health now wants to medicalise. On the whole, Global Mental Health, in the words of the critics, becomes a form of “medical imperialism” (Summerfield 2008, p. 992) that “reproduces (neo)colonial power relationships” (Mills and Davar 2016, p. 443).

We acknowledge the conceptual, scientific, and anthropological critiques of psychiatry and have written about them elsewhere.[7] At the same time we do not wish to speculate about and judge the intention of Global Mental Health, or whether it’s a ‘neo-colonial’ enterprise that serves the interests of pharmaceutical companies. Our concern is to proceed at face-value by examining a particular kind of interaction: on one hand, we have scientifically grounded public mental health prevention campaigns that seek to reduce the incidence of mental disorders in low- and middle-income countries; on the other hand, we have the cultural contexts in these countries where there already are entirely different frameworks for categorising, understanding, treating, and preventing various forms of distress and disability. What sort of ethical principles ought to regulate this interaction, where prevention of ‘mental disorders’ is at stake?

The meaning of prevention with which we are concerned in this chapter is primary, universal prevention, to be distinguished from mental health promotion, from secondary prevention, and from primary prevention that is of a selective or indicated nature. Primary prevention “aims to avert or avoid the incidence of new cases” and is therefore concerned with reducing risk factors for mental disorders (Radden 2018, p. 127, see also WHO 2004, p. 16). Secondary prevention, on the other hand, “occurs once diagnosable disease is present [and] might thus be seen as a form of treatment” (Radden 2018, p. 127). In contrast to prevention, mental health promotion “employs strategies for strengthening protective factors to enhance the social and emotional well-being and quality of life of the general population” (Peterson et al. 2014, p. 3). It is not directly concerned with risk factors for disorders but with positive mental health. With universal prevention the entire population is within view of the interventions, whereas with selective and indicated prevention, the target groups are, respectively, those “whose risk for developing the mental health disorder is significantly higher than average” and those who have “minimal but detectable signs or symptoms” (Evans et al. 2012, p .5). While there is overlap among these various efforts, we focus on primary, universal prevention. Our decision to do so stems from the fact that such interventions, in being wholly anticipatory and population wide put marked, and perhaps even unique, ethical pressure on the encounter between the cultural context (and existing ideas on risk and prevention of distress and disability) and the biomedical public mental health approach.

It is helpful for ethical analysis to begin with a sufficiently detailed understanding of the contexts and interactions that are the subject of analysis. With these details at hand, what matters in a particular interaction is brought to light and the ethical issues become easier to grasp. Accordingly, we begin in section 2 with an ethnographic account of the primary prevention of ‘depression’ in the Dakhla Oasis of Egypt from the perspective of the community. The Dakhla Oasis is a rural community where there is no psychiatric presence or modern biomedical concepts yet – like most communities around the world – there is no shortage of mental-health related distress and disability. It is a paradigmatic example of the kind of community where Global Mental Health would want to action its campaigns. In section 3 we move on to the perspective of a Public Health Team concerned with preventing depression in light of scientific and evidence-based risk factors and preventive strategies. Section 4 outlines the conflict between the perspective of the Team and that of the community. Given this conflict, sections 5 and 6 discuss the ethical issues that arise in the case of two levels of intervention: family and social relationships, and individual interventions.


[1] See Horton (2007), Prince et al. (2007), and Saxena et al. (2007).

[2] Most recently there was vocal opposition to a ‘Global Ministerial Mental Health Summit’ that was held on the 9th and 10th of October 2018 in London. The National Survivor and User Network (U.K.) sent an open letter to the organisers of the summit, objecting to the premise, approach, and intention of Global Mental Health.

[3] See Summerfield (2008, 2012, 2013), Mills and Davar (2016), Fernando (2011), and Whitley (2015).

[4] For debates on the definition of the concept of mental disorder consult Boorse (2011), Bolton (2008, 2013), Varga (2015), and Kingma (2013).

[5] For discussions of the (in)validity of psychiatric categories see Kinderman et al. (2013), Horwitz and Wakefield (2007), and Timimi (2014). Often, the problem is framed by asking whether mental disorders are natural kinds (see Jablensky 2016, Kendell and Jablensky 2003, Zachar 2015, and Simon 2011).

[6] See, for example, Fabrega (1989), Littlewood (1990), and Rashed (2013a).

[7] For example: Rashed and Bingham (2014), Rashed (2013b), and Bingham and Banner (2014).


More Things in Heaven and Earth


For a few months in 2009 and 2010 I was a resident of Mut, a small town in the Dakhla Oasis in the Western desert of Egypt. My aim was to become acquainted with the social institution of spirit possession, and with sorcery and Qur’anic healing (while keeping an eye on how all of this intersects with ‘mental disorder’ and ‘madness’). I learnt many things, among which was the normalness with which spirit possession was apprehended in the community: people invoked spirits to explain a slight misfortune as much as a life- changing event; to make sense of what we would refer to as ‘schizophrenia’, and to make sense of a passing dysphoria. It was part of everyday life. The way in which spirit possession cut across these diverse areas of life got me thinking about the broader role it plays in preserving meaning when things go wrong. To help me think these issues through I brought in the concepts of ‘intentionality’ and ‘personhood’. The result is my essay More Things in Heaven and Earth: Spirit Possession, Mental Disorder, and Intentionality (2018, open access at the Journal of Medical Humanities).

The essay is a philosophical exploration of a range of concepts and how they relate to each other. It appeals sparingly, though decisively, to the ethnography that I had conducted at Dakhla. If you want to know more about the place and the community you can check these blog-posts:

The Dakhla Diaries (1) : Fast to Charing-X, Slow to Hell

The Dakhla Oasis: Stories from the ‘field’ (0)

The Dakhla Diaries (3): Wedding Invitation

Old Mut, Dakhla

The Dakhla Oasis: Stories from the ‘field’ (I)

And this is a piece I published in the newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly (2009) voicing my view on some of the practices that I had observed: To Untie or Knot


Spirit Possession, Personhood, & Intentionality: Perspectives for the Philosophy of Mental Health

Summary of an essay I completed recently.

Spirit possession is a common phenomenon around the world in which a non-corporeal agent is involved with a human host. This manifests in a range of maladies or in displacement of the host’s agency and identity. Prompted by engagement with the phenomenon in Africa, this paper draws some connections between spirit possession, and the concepts of personhood and intentionality. It employs these concepts to articulate spirit possession, while also developing the intentional stance as formulated by Daniel Dennett. It argues for an understanding of spirit possession as the spirit stance: an intentional strategy that aims at predicting and explaining behaviour by ascribing to an agent (the spirit) beliefs and desires, but is only deployed once the mental states and activity of the subject (the person) fail specific normative distinctions. Applied to behaviours which are generally taken to signal ‘madness’ or ‘mental illness’, the spirit stance preserves a peculiar form of intentionality where otherwise behaviour would be explained as consequence of a broken physical mechanism. Centuries before the modern disciplines of psychoanalysis and phenomenological-psychopathology endeavoured to restore meaning to ‘madness’, the social institution of spirit possession had been preserving the intentionality of socially deviant behaviour.