Conference Agenda

7D: Faith in/and Psychiatry
Thursday, 09/Sept/2021:
1:30pm - 2:45pm

Session Chair: Prof. Heiner Fangerau, U of Düsseldorf, Germany


How We Should Live – Christianity in Finnish Psychosomatic Medicine, c. 1945–1960*

Hyrkäs, Eve-Riina

University of Oulu, Finland

The presentation discusses the relationship between Christian faith and medicine through an intellectual biography of single historical agent, the Finnish theologist-psychiatrist Asser Stenbäck (1913–2006). Stenbäck was a prominent figure not only in Finnish psychiatry, but also in Nordic psychiatric cooperation and internationally recognised for his work in gerontology. Most importantly, in the latter half of the twentieth century, Stenbäck developed an original understanding of psychosomatic medicine, which addressed the tensions between Lutheran Christianity, medicine, and health. Stenbäck argued that psychosomatic health could not be achieved without abiding to the ethical guidelines listed in Ten Commandments. The influence of breaking this eternal moral code transferred from the spirit into the soul through moral sentiments, such as guilt and anxiety. Stenbäck’s deep Christian conviction was combined with a rigorous take on stress theory, showing how the mind influenced the body through physiological pathways. The presentation acts as a commentary on the morality entailed in psychosomatics, as Stenbäck’s argumentation aspired to preserve the idea of ‘embodied sin’ in the secular age of medicine. I also wish to bring attention to the difference between dogmatic and affective dimensions of religion. Stenbäck’s approach emphasised the norms entailed in Christianity rather than the healing powers of faith itself. In this respect, the case study enriches the existing historiography on religiously influenced psychosomatics.

‘The Magic Years?’: Faith in American Psychiatry during the Post-War Period

Smith, Matthew

University of Strathclyde, United Kingdom

In the American Psychiatric Association (APA) archives, lies a dusty old box with a fascinating secret. In it is an unfinished manuscript written by psychiatrist and APA medical director Daniel Blain (1898-1981) called ‘The Magic Years: The History of Psychiatry, Mental Health and Mental Retardation, 1945-1970’. As its title suggests, ‘The Magic Years’ cast post-war psychiatry in a warm, rosy glow, describing how psychiatry had moved ahead unprecedentedly, with psychiatric knowledge advancing, better treatments, old, crumbling asylums being replaced by community mental health care centres, and increased public and political awareness of mental illness growing, leading to the foundation of the National Institute of Mental Health and legislation such as the Community Mental Health Act. Most encouraging were research collaborations between social scientists and psychiatrists that promised to elucidate environmental causes of mental illness, resulting in preventive psychiatry. For a medical discipline that had long been viewed as being not particularly scientific, authoritative, or even respectable, this faith in psychiatry’s ability to transform American psychiatry was both refreshing and empowering.

In the decades since, however, historians and psychiatrists have typically portrayed post-war American psychiatry in much more negative terms, describing it as overly idealistic and impractical. Many of these interpretations have pointed to what happened in more recent decades, rather than analysing what psychiatry had hoped to achieve in the years following WWII. In this presentation, I revisit ‘The Magic Years’, suggesting that we may want to reconsider the preventive, holistic, and interdisciplinary approach to mental health espoused then today.

‘We believe in medicine, we believe in science’. Unpacking ‘belief’ at the intersection of psychiatric nursing and religious healing in rural southwestern Ghana

Draicchio, Cecilia

Sapienza University of Rome, Italy

Drawing on my ethnographic fieldwork in the Western Region of Ghana on the articulations between psychiatry and religious healing in dealing with madness and mental suffering, the paper is aimed at discussing the theoretical role that the ambiguous concept of ‘belief’ may have in understanding such articulations. Both in medical anthropology and the anthropology of religion, eminent scholars have warned us against its use, highlighting the many limits that the concept of ‘belief’ entails (Good 2008; Meyer and Houtman 2013). Nevertheless, the term has been a keyword in the history of anthropology and continues to be used, sometimes uncritically, in formal and informal ethnographic accounts, as well as in everyday discussions. In conversations about mental healthcare in Ghana, ‘belief’ is often used in the third person and evoked by institutions and biomedical practitioners as the main obstacle for ‘mentally ill’ people to get proper care. In the same context, however, the idea of ‘believing in something’ can often be used also with its original meaning of ‘pledging allegiance to’ (Good 2008; cf. Smith 1977) and be equally used to talk about spirits, God, and - interestingly - science. Paradoxically, in both uses the term always conveys also its opposite: doubt (cf. Luhrmann 2012; Boyer 2013).

It is precisely the doubleness of the concept of ‘belief’ and, even most importantly, its constitutive relationship with doubt that could prove surprisingly illuminating in order to understand how people (patients, relatives, practitioners) navigate different therapeutic resources and meanings during healing processes in Ghana (and beyond).