Critical Mental Health and the Allure of Orientalism

Akiko Hart, Tehseen Noorani and Mary Sadid point to orientalism in critical mental health discourses and practices, and invite contributions that help us trace, resist and overturn these problematic tendencies across mental healthcare, wellbeing and biomedicine.

In looking towards healing and building alternatives to dominant, biomedicalised models of mental health, individuals and collectives – situated in clinical, academic and grassroots contexts – often look ‘elsewhere’. This elsewhere takes the form of the exotic and/or feminised, and as local, indigenous, or Eastern folk wisdom, pitted against the disenchanted, reductionist, rational West. One of the clearest recent examples of this has been with meditation and mindfulness, where certain East, South-east and South Asian knowledges and practices have been fetishized, decontextualised, commodified, and repackaged for global markets by white brokers (Davar, 2016; Purser, 2019).

A painting of a snake charmer in a room of men watching
The Snake Charmer (c. 1879). Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Original cover image, Said, E. (1978) Orientalism, New York: Vintage Books.

The analytics of orientalism (Said, 1978) offer a useful guide for unpacking the false binaries that pervade processes of extracting, constructing and practising alternatives within critical and alternative mental health spaces. Said’s influential scholarship traced the cultural impact of colonialism and historic oppressions, in the making of the image of a superior West as against an inferior East, thereby legitimising continued forms of neo-colonial domination. Whether the continued pitting of West against East, the individual against the collective, science against wisdom, or reductive, racist tropes about Eastern purity, sagacity, nobility, these colonial processes of othering reflect back upon, and therefore remake, the West as superior (see also Hall, 2019).

We have become interested in the persistence of orientalist patterns within mad liberation work. At a grassroots level, mental health campaigning groups in the Anglophone West and the UK in particular often erase the work of local racialised activists and campaigners, while embracing simplistic tropes about Eastern healing and mysticism. Sometimes these tropes are driven by the tales of Western travellers seeking healing and understanding far from home, returning with solutions and answers, as with the wave of ‘guru-seeking’ in the wake of the countercultural 1960s. This means that narratives of resistance and radicalism end up following colonial logics and topologies, rarely acknowledging, honouring or elevating, let alone being in dialogue with (Spivak, 1989), liberation work in other countries, or even outside of the West’s own white silos.

Over the last few years, the success of the documentary CRAZYWISE (2017) in Western Europe and North America starkly revealed the hunger for alternatives to the status quo. White brokers mediate and market alternatives which are categorised rather simplistically, as holistic and embodied, as spiritual rather than religious, and as both local and universal in their applicability. By extracting and decontextualising knowledge, these critiques can perpetuate colonial myths about the locus of science, and, ironically, side-line local struggles around deinstitutionalization and psychiatric coercion, all while participating in the making of ‘others’. These others are made up in ways that reveal the limitations of the West’s own cherished distinctions, as it imposes its own ways of thinking and judging onto others.

A creative digital flower
‘Exotic Madness,’ image generated by MidJourney.

As a common process of othering, such stereotyping not only lumps together but splits apart, as when the other is polarised into good and bad versions, the noble versus the ignoble savage. Similarly, throughout academic, clinical, and grassroots movement-building critical mental health worlds in the UK, we find a split in the fetishisation of some knowledges and practices, and the denigration of others. The disregard for, if not revulsion towards, Islamic Jinn and evil eye raises questions of Islamophobia, and can be contrasted with the willing mystique accorded the contemplative Buddhist master (Isgandarova, 2022; Masuzawa, 2005). Or consider the celebration of a spiritual ‘India’ within the wellness industry, a flattening that discursively erases the figure of the Muslim Indian and other minority groups, violently mimicking ethnic cleansing within its Hindutva-nationalist movements – indeed, Partition itself. Decontextualisation can erase realities of casteism and systemic oppression that trouble visions of inspirational alternatives. Further, an indifference towards the complexities of exiled or diasporic identities and knowledge privileges certain voices and communities over others, stoking ‘good immigrant’ and ‘bad immigrant’ narratives underneath the rhetoric of inclusion.

All of this discursive activity entrenches and is re-entrenched by processes of imperialism, made to work for material and political gain in ever-new and unexpected ways. Context-dependent alternatives need to be stripped down, objectified, and made to yield an ‘evidence-base’. Politicising alternatives need to be denuded of threat so that they can be merely therapeutic. Those seen as unable to resist global capitalist predations are understood to need our protection, inviting not simply Western saviourism but securitisation measures that seek also to capture new markets (Constantinou & Opondo, 2016). For example, the UK PREVENT strategy, which is predicated on the buy-in of professionals from the ‘psy’ disciplines, as well as psychologisation as a tool to evade the charge of racism, to enact surveillance and control of racialised Muslims (Younis, 2020, see also Liebert, 2019).

Call for Contributions

We invite contributions to expand upon and interrogate the dynamics of orientalism within mad liberation, mental health, and clinical research and practice. The following questions could be used as a springboard or a guide, but we are open to any ideas which build on the main theme of orientalism in critical and alternative mental health services:

  • What problems, questions, or framings, appear to be driving orientalism in mental health?
  • How are normatively-valenced orientalist oppositions and over-simplifications being actively perpetuated or challenged in UK mental healthcare?
  • How do contemporary social justice-oriented movements of healing justice, mad pride, and neurodiversity trouble – but also potentially reproduce – these orientalist processes?
  • How do those working in mental healthcare in the UK who find themselves within these distinctions take up, invert, or subvert them anew?
  • What new distinctions exist beyond, between, or within practices of exoticizing, romanticising, fetishising, demonising, hypersexualizing and feminizing of groups and identities in the UK?
  • What does orientialism in mental health in the UK tell us about dominant contemporary conceptions of what it means to be ‘Western’?
  • What role does sanism play in the dynamics of orientalism, and how does it interact with racism and sexualization?
  • What are the intersections between orientalism and anti-blackness, including how critiques of orientalism themselves might take care to not reinscribe anti-blackness?
  • How might decolonial theory interface with the analyses of orientalism in critical and alternative mental health?

How to Contribute

If you are interested in contributing (and we hope you are!), please email a brief outline of what you would like to write on to mail@thepolyphony.org. We are accepting contributions in an ongoing manner. You are also welcome to contact Tehseen directly if you would like to discuss your ideas. For those not in a full-time paid job, do also let us know if financial help (provided by NSUN) would enable you to be able to write your submission.

About the Guest Editors

Akiko Hart is the interim director of Liberty. She has been appointed a Professor in Practice at the University of Durham, working alongside the Institute for Medical Humanities. Follow Akiko @AkikoMHart.

Tehseen Noorani conducts research at the intersections of mad justice, psychosis, and psychedelic experiences. He is a part-time Scholar-in-Residence at Tactogen Public Benefit Corporation and Ambassador for the Fireside Project. Until recently he was a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of East London. Follow Tehseen @TehseenNoorani and contact Tehseen at tehs.noorani@gmail.com.

Mary Sadid is the Policy Manager at NSUN, the National Survivor User Network, working to deliver NSUN’s rights-based policy function and projects looking at the social determinants of mental ill health and distress and migrant and racial justice. Follow Mary @_marysadid.

References

Constantinou, C.M. & Opondo, S.O. (2016) ‘Engaging the ‘Ungoverned’: The merging of diplomacy, defence and development’, Cooperation and Conflict, vol. 51(3), 307–324, https://doi.org/10.1177/0010836715612848

Davar, B. (2016). ‘Alternatives or a way of life?’, in Searching for a Rose Garden: challenging psychiatry, fostering mad studies (ed. Russo, J & Sweeney, A.). PCCS Books: Monmouth, pp.14-19.

Hall, S. (2019) ‘The West and the Rest’, in Essential Essays, Volume 2 (ed Morley, D). Duke University Press: Durham and London, pp.141-184.

Isgandarova, N. (2022) ‘Clinical Interpretation of Jinn Possession and Cultural Formulation of Mental Illness’, Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling, https://doi.org/10.1177/15423050221116775.

Liebert, R. (2019) Psycurity: Colonialism, paranoia and the war on imagination, London: Routledge.

Masuzawa, T. (2005) The Invention of World Religions: Or, how European universalism was preserved in the language of pluralism, University of Chicago Press.

Purser, R. (1979) Mindfulness: How mindfulness became the new capitalist spirituality, Repeater Books.

Said, E. (1979). Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.

Spivak, G.C. (1988) ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in C. Nelson & L. Grossberg (eds) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Chicago: University of Illinois Press: 271-313.

Younis, T. (2020) ‘The Psychologisation of Counter-extremism: Unpacking PREVENT’, Race & Class, vol. 62(3),https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0306396820951055.

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