University of Copenhagen: New research centre will investigate if mental illness is universal

Is the human psyche the same across cultures? And do people experience mental disorders in the same way no matter what language they speak? These are some of the fundamental questions that the new Centre for Culture and the Mind will try to answer. The Danish National Research Foundation has selected the centre for final contract negotiations with a view to establishing a new Centre of Excellence.

Researchers within the fields of psychiatry, psychology and a number of humanities’ disciplines have spent more than 100 years trying to understand the relationship between human psyche and cultural background – and also tried understand whether people experience mental disorders the same way all over the world. However, there has never been a systematic study of this fundamental question with a basis in humanistic research disciplines. .

Professor MSO Ana Antic will now have the opportunity to complete such a study when she establishes the Centre for Culture and the Mind at the University of Copenhagen. A centre that the Danish National Research Foundation has selected for contract negotiations with a view to establishing a new Centre of Excellence with a grant of DKK 38 million.

“One of our working hypotheses is that the medical and psychiatric treatment of mental disorders will be more effective if it is linked to knowledge of relevant cultural, social, linguistic and political aspects of the patient’s world. These help shape how we react to illness,” says centre director Ana Antic. She adds:

About the centre
The Centre for Culture and the Mind is anchored at the Department of English, Germanic and Romance Studies at the University of Copenhagen, where Ana Antic is employed as professor with special responsibilities (MSO).

In addition to Ana Antic, the centre will consist of Associate Professor Peter Leese and Dr. Lamia Moghnieh, both of whom are employed at the Department of English, Germanic and Romance Studies, as well as a number of postdocs and PhD students with expertise in history, anthropology, comparative literature, linguistics, psychology and psychiatry

Some will be employed at the Competency Centre for Transcultural Psychiatry under the leadership of Research Associate Professor Jessica Carlsson who was a co-applicant together with Peter Leese.

Ana Antic also leads the ERC-funded research project Decolonising Madness, which examines some of the same fundamental questions as the Centre for Culture and the Mind, e.g. whether psychiatry has managed to liberate itself from its colonial past after World War II.

“However, in order to examine these aspects systematically, it is necessary to take a cross-disciplinary approach, and therefore researchers from history, anthropology, language research, Comparative Literature, psychiatry and psychology will contribute to the research the coming six years – and hopefully 10. For example, it is crucial for our research that we can identify how mental disorders have been perceived and described throughout history in a variety of cultures

Close collaboration between practitioners and researchers
In a time of major humanitarian crises and mass migration, it is, according to Ana Antic, extremely important to investigate the extent to which psychological conditions can be translated from one culture to another and made universal. Several of The Centre for Culture and the Mind’s projects will thus be carried out in close collaboration with the Competence Centre for Transcultural Psychiatry in the Capital Region of Denmark, which research associate professor and consultant doctor Jessica Carlsson heads

“At the Competency Centre for Transcultural Psychiatry (CTP), we offer treatment to both traumatised refugees, often with post-traumatic stress disorder, and partly other refugees and immigrants with mental disorders, where the cultural background plays a particularly important role in relation to how the disorder is expressed,” says Jessica Carlsson and elaborates:

“At CTP, we are working intensively to carry out clinical research as part of our daily practice This means research that often stems from questions that arise in the meeting between patient and therapist, and which, without too many detours, can will feed back into the clinical work and hopefully benefit the patients. We have always had a close interdisciplinary collaboration at our clinic. With Culture and the Mind, we are opening up a further interdisciplinary collaboration, and I’m convinced that it will give us new perspectives and an even better grasp of the problems.

Ana Antic adds:

“It will be absolutely crucial to establish a close collaboration between clinicians who work with, for example, traumatised refugees, and us humanistic researchers who are conducting the historical, linguistic and anthropological studies,” she says and concludes:

“One of our goals is to develop common tools and a model for how we can work together on transcultural investigations of the psyche. In addition, we will work together to develop a teaching programme in transcultural psychiatry where medical and psychology students at the University of Copenhagen and other institutions can take courses.