In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mental Health and Illness

  • Introduction
  • Overviews
  • Edited Volumes
  • Journals
  • Addiction
  • Anthropology and Psychiatry in Dialogue
  • Care and the Family
  • Chronicity
  • Cultures of Psychiatry
  • Depression
  • Eating Disorders
  • Experience, Narrative, and Subjectivity
  • Global Mental Health and Mental Life as Global
  • Humanitarianism and Mental Health
  • Institutionalization and Institutional Life
  • Medicalization
  • Migration and Mental Health
  • New Brain Sciences
  • New Markets, New Therapies
  • Pharmaceuticals and Psychopharmacology
  • Psychiatric Reform and Deinstitutionalization
  • Psychiatry and Colonialism
  • Recovery Movements and Patient Empowerment
  • Schizophrenia
  • Suicide
  • Trauma
  • War and Mental Health

Anthropology Mental Health and Illness
Jocelyn Lim Chua
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 June 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0268


Anthropological contributions to the study of mental health and illness span diverse literatures and track a wide field of intellectual traditions and debates in their approaches to mental disorder, treatment, and recovery. Much as can be said of anthropology as a discipline more generally, the long history of the anthropological study of mental illness in cross-cultural context has been entwined in large-scale historical processes, including colonialism, racism, migration, war, and globalization. This history has also been shaped by the dynamic dialogue between anthropology, psychology, psychiatry, and global public health, and from which a number of subfields and intellectual traditions have emerged, among them ethnopsychiatry, cultural psychiatry, social psychiatry, and, most recently, global mental health. While certain core themes in the anthropological study of mental disorder that extend back to the early days of anthropology persist today, others have newly emerged in response to contemporary conditions. Collectively, these core themes recognize how mental illness experiences are richly variable and cultural in nature, and that psychiatric diagnosis is itself contingent, involving styles of reasoning and ways of knowing that are culturally informed and shaped by institutional landscapes and translational processes. These core themes include questions regarding psychiatric taxonomy and whether the classification of mental health problems is universal or culturally relative; the structural sources of human distress and suffering; treatment systems and interventions, such as the role of institutions and therapies in shaping the social course and experience of mental illness; the phenomenology of living with mental disorder; and the forms of psychiatric knowledge and practice enacted in contexts ranging from addiction treatment clinics to humanitarian settings. Studies span a wide range of engagement, from cultural critique to intervention studies that position anthropologists as collaborators in the development of effective and accessible interventions. Many studies draw on anthropology’s classic traditions of ethnography and long-term fieldwork, while raising questions and propositions for the relevance of anthropological methods and theories in the face of new ontologies of mental disorder, emergent technological frontiers, changing political and economic contexts, and the global aspirations of mental health treatment. In their complexity, mental health and illness speak to fundamental questions concerning the nature of human experience in changing worlds, making the topic deeply relevant for anthropology.


A number of overviews have been published on the anthropological study of mental illness in cross-cultural and global context that collectively reflect the diverse perspectives, approaches, and debates of the field. A useful resource for survey courses in the anthropology of mental health for both undergraduates and graduate students, Khan 2017 offers a concise introduction to the history and diversity of debates and approaches in the anthropology of mental health and psychiatry. Kohrt and Mendenhall 2015 is a highly readable text suitable for all levels that focuses on anthropological perspectives to global mental health, while also providing a useful overview of intellectual and disciplinary approaches and discussion of ethnographic methods in the study of mental health. While Kohrt and Mendenhall 2015 engages the applicability of anthropology to global mental health, White, et al. 2017, by contrast, offers more critical reflections on the emergence of global mental health as a field of study and intervention. Marsella and White 1982 is an early volume that remains pertinent for its useful introduction to themes in the study of the social and symbolic organization of cultural knowledge of mental disorder, using diverse ethnographic case studies. While published in the mid-1990s, Desjarlais, et al. 1996 offers a useful overview of mental health and behavioral health issues that remains relevant to the study of global health burdens. Bhugra and Bhui 2018 is a textbook now in its second edition that integrates theoretical and practical knowledge aimed at a more advanced readership of health professionals.

  • Bhugra, Dinesh, and Kamaldeep Bhui, eds. 2018. Textbook of cultural psychiatry. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This second edition of Textbook of Cultural Psychiatry integrates theoretical and clinical approaches written by scholars in anthropology, psychiatry, psychology, and allied fields to guide culturally informed approaches to psychiatric training, clinical practice, and research. The textbook’s six sections include historical accounts of the development of cultural psychiatry and its subfields, overviews of major debates, discussions of specific disorders, and directions for future research and training.

  • Desjarlais, Robert, Leon Eisenberg, Byron Good, and Arthur Kleinman. 1996. World mental health: Problems and priorities in low-income countries. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    While published in the mid-1990s, this book remains relevant for documenting the anthropology, epidemiology, and range of consequences of major mental health and behavioral issues that constitute a major part of the global health burden. Framed as a call to action to improve mental health throughout the world, the book is organized by major disorders and behavioral health challenges, including substance abuse, violence, dislocation, and the problems of children and youth. Includes recommendations for research, service provision, and policy.

  • Khan, Nichola. 2017. Mental disorder. Ontario: Univ. of Toronto Press.

    This concise textbook offers an introduction to key concerns and issues in the anthropology of mental health and psychiatry, offering a useful survey of debates and questions in the field that would be appropriate for both undergraduate and graduate students. Each chapter concludes with discussion questions and teaching activities, and the appendix includes a list of recommended resources.

  • Kohrt, Brandon, and Emily Mendenhall, eds. 2015. Global mental health: Anthropological perspectives. London: Routledge.

    This lucidly written and wide-ranging volume highlights the contributions of anthropological methods and perspectives to global mental health. Presents a wide range of case studies, giving special attention to the social and structural origins of mental health problems and approaches to culturally appropriate care. Offers useful overviews of intellectual and disciplinary approaches to the anthropological study of mental health and discusses the role and significance of ethnographic methods.

  • Marsella, Anthony J., and Geoffrey White. 1982. Cultural conceptions of mental health and therapy. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-010-9220-3

    This volume reflects themes and interests in the cross-disciplinary study of culture and mental health that emerged early in the critique of mental health as caused by universal processes. Proposes that the symbolic ordering of illness in terms of meaning and folk “theories” is an important path for mental health research and practice.

  • White, Ross G., Sumeet Jain, David M. R. Orr, and Ursula M. Read. 2017. The Palgrave handbook of sociocultural perspectives on global mental health. London: Palgrave.

    DOI: 10.1057/978-1-137-39510-8

    This handbook offers a critical engagement with global mental health as a movement and field of study and intervention. Drawing on contributions across humanities and social science disciplines, the three sections of the volume critically reflect on efforts to globalize mental health interventions, while also identifying key themes important to addressing the mental health needs of those living in diverse contexts.

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