When it’s all in the patient’s head. (But is it?)

The Scream - painting by Edvard Munch


Registration open for BALM short course 

Medical professionals around the world often encounter patients with physical symptoms that have no medical explanation. Often the professional may send the patient home saying that the illness is all in the “patient’s head”. Instead of being a mere facile dismissal of the patient’s ailment, this phrase hints at the connect between the mind and the body – physical problems that are created by undiagnosed, undiscovered mental problems.

The physical symptoms – often dizziness, chronic headaches, non-cardiac chest pains – are caused by problems of the mind. The actual symptoms could vary depending on the sociocultural milieu of the patient. Psychiatrists refer to this physical manifestation of a mental illness as somatisation. This condition of actual and acute physical suffering that cannot be explained by a problem in the body is known as Body Distress.

In a country like India, where there is shortage of mental health professionals, it is key that doctors and researchers are aware of Body Distress. This year, the seventh short course, to be held September 3-5, 2012 offered by the University College London (UCL) in collaboration with The Banyan Academy of Leadership in Mental Health (BALM), will focus on this issue. The course, titled Distress and the Body: Anthropological and Clinical Dimensions, aims to provide an understanding of the conceptual, theoretical and clinical challenges in applying social science theories about the body in relation to suffering.

Aside from somatisation, the course will look at pain, the issue of body image and the eating disorders related to it, among others. The course, which is open to social scientists, anthropologists, medical and mental health professionals will also try to zero in on ways in which to intervene in these areas, especially in the context of mental health in South Asia.

The three-day course will include sessions on the “Theoretical & Conceptual Issues: Cultural construction of bodily distress, and the expression of suffering through the body with an emphasis on the South Asian context.” It will close with a session on identifying the presentation of illness in the body and seeing how the presentation is a reflection of societal tensions and concerns of the person. The session will work at re-formulating “existing and often culturally invalid interventions predicated on ‘western’ ideas of the Body.” says the BALM Course Co-ordinator.

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