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Issues in the German History of Psychiatry

I have been invited to the 6th Central German Conference on the History of Medicine and Science at the College of Medicine at Martin Luther University Halle/Wittenberg this week. The conference featured a number of presentations on the history of Halle’s university and affiliated research institutions, and several on the history of psychiatry in (central) Germany.

My talk presented a brief overview on my current research project, particularly the social-activist stance in public discourse on war experience, veterans’ issues, and PTSD in US civil society. Writing this, I realize how much the project has expanded in recent years: Initially, I described it as an analysis of milblogs, read through the lens of Indigenous warrior traditions. Today, with the book manuscript almost completed, I find that milblogs comprise only one among many source types informing the project, and that its discussion covers research interests and methodology from literary and cultural studies, (new) media studies, anthropology, cultural and medical history, and psychology.

In Halle, I focused on notions of social therapy and cultural transfer in public discourse about PTSD and military psychology since Vietnam. In particular, I addressed how the frequent reference to Native American traditions among civic activists helped promote social therapy, alternative medicine, and the notion of ritual as a therapeutic tool in US psychology, psychiatry, and social work on veterans’ issues.

What I found fascinating about the conference was the opportunity to compare and contextualize: Many presentations also touched upon the role of social issues in German psychiatric history, notably the competition between biological and social approaches after 1945. Apparently, social perspectives in psychiatry coming from the US and the UK (e.g. discussing the origin of psychoses) heavily influenced public and academic debates in post-war West Germany. Eventually, these social perspectives helped pass legislation that made victims of Nazi persecution eligible for financial compensation – dominant biological explanations (e.g. the assumption that genetic predispositions were the sole root of psychoses) had prevented such compensation for years after the war.

It was striking to compare the interweaving of psychological/psychiatric research, public debates, and contemporary social problems in post-war Germany with the public debates on war-related psychological injuries and civil-military relationships in the US, and once more realize the transatlantic dimension of such public debates. I hope that I can present further thoughts and evolving ideas in more posts during the coming weeks to accompany the completion of my manuscript.

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