Our concept of mental illness in the West is largely shaped by the DSM diagnostic model. The DSM categorization of psychiatric disorders has been useful in driving research, and psychiatric neuroscience has made enormous strides in identifying some of the brain-based factors that contribute to mental disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, as well as suggesting possible drug therapies. Both neuroscientists and anthropologists have raised questions about the validity and utility of these categories, however. Neuroscientists are concerned that the categories obfuscate the key brain-behavior linkages underlying pathological processes. Anthropologists on the other hand argue that the categories are largely social constructions and that the current neurobiological zeitgeist minimally attends to social and cultural processes of mental illness. Much still remains unknown, particularly how the social and cultural worlds interact with neurobiological processes to produce mental symptoms that we recognize as depression or psychosis in everyday life and what this interaction implies for diagnosis and treatment.
The aim of FPR-UCLA’s 4th interdisciplinary conference was to improve the quality of psychiatric diagnosis and treatment by giving specific attention to biological and cultural contexts and their interactions. Given the abundant criticism directed to both the biological and cultural validity of current DSM diagnostic categories, the focus is particularly important and timely. DSM-V revisions are now underway that attempt to incorporate dimensions of mental illness, as well as divergent cross-cultural aspects and underlying neurobiological factors common to different disorders. Both areas were addressed at the conference in presentations and panel discussions.
The conference was unique in several ways: its interdisciplinary focus; the quality of scholarship by a group of distinguished contributors from neuroscience, anthropology, and psychiatry; and the emphasis on identifying key questions and research opportunities at the intersection of biology and culture. To increase understanding of the experience of living with an autism spectrum condition or schizophrenia, the program was designed to move between formal talks, personal stories, and observations from anthropological fieldwork.
The conference appealed to a wide audience: clinicians, researchers, social workers and therapists, neuroscientists, anthropologists, and others interested in the science, experience, diagnosis, and treatment of mental illness.