conferenceReport: Other Psychotherapies: Psychotherapies across time, space and cultures

University of Glasgow

April 2017

Reporter Polly Mortimer

This conference, organised by the University of Glasgow and funded by the Wellcome Trust, offered a refreshing insight to into global perspectives of Psychotherapy, away from Westernised models. In this review I will summarise the key aspects of the conference and the various approaches covered.

Keynote: Theory and practice in Ayurvedic psychotherapy, Claudia Lang (Munich)
Ayurvedic medicine is a 5000 year old tradition in the Indian sub-continent. Ayurveda names three elemental substances, the doshas (called Vata, Pitta and Kapha), and states that a balance of the doshas results in health, while imbalance results in disease. The aim is to balance the physiological, the moral and the cognitive.

An Ayruvedic clinic was described and we were shown various treatments, some of which reminded me of medieval ‘remedies’ from the West. These included a special powder called ‘serpentina’, medical smoking, purging (purification), a medicated mudpack, internal oils, medicated ghee, steam baths, therapeutic vomiting, oil enemas and nasal drops.

There was a sense that the patient had to ‘control themselves’ and be compliant, whatever the cause of distress was, and no matter how extreme and traumatic the treatment. Depression is seen as a lack of mental strength, and willpower is found in body channels.   I’m sure there are gentler applications of Ayurveda, but seeing this extreme end was shocking.

Panel 2 Cultures of psychotherapy: indigenous, sub- and popular

Culture as healing in indigenous mental health, Laurence J Kirmayer
The nature of afflictions and transformation stands outside social science. The entourage are implicated in the healing, and the Western idea of egocentricism impairs agency. There is a huge ruptural awareness between historical trauma, the ecological sense of self, and the spiritual self. Phenomena such as violence and cultural genocide are named, and trauma focussed therapies, including recognition and incorporation, are used with residential school survivors.

Is subcultural psychiatry a useful concept, and can subcultural identity be useful in reducing harm? Robert Young
This is the world of social epidemiology, particularly social identity. Concentrating on Goths, nasty stats were given on the likelihood of assault and victimization. A range of self harms were shown (with trigger warnings) and there was a recognition of the help that therapy gave in these situations. Certain tattoos also signified support.

 Rehabilitating the Mind: Avatar and Inception and the science fiction imaging of lucid dreaming in the psychotherapeutic treatment of PTSD in the American military, Sue Smith
Transhumanism is an international and intellectual movement that aims to transform the human condition by developing and making widely available sophisticated technologies to enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities. The idea is based on the concept that it is too expensive to compensate soldiers for PTSD or brain damage from blasts, so virtual reality or lucid dreaming come in as treatment.

Local Adaptations 1

Sexual therapies in 1970s Czechoslovakia, Katerina Liskova
The speaker traced the changes of emphasis that took place in the Sexological Institute in Prague after WW2. Starting with dealing with problems of female orgasm, it was extrapolated that women couldn’t conceive without sexual pleasure. Following World War II there was a presumption of equality between the spouses, but by the 1960s there were more defined masculine and feminine roles in society, and a gender hierarchy. Czechoslovakia decriminalised homosexuality earlier than the rest of Europe.

 Changing landscape of therapeutic health care, Henderson, dynamic psychiatry, early twentieth century, Hazel Morrison
Following the work of Dr Adolf Mayer the staff of Henderson Hospital practised dynamic psychiatry through a biopsychosocial approach, with an emphasis on experience, and listening to the patient’s life story. Departing from the third person approach, of an anonymous, passive, agentless norm, there was an encouragement of first-person narratives and focus on how the whole person could emerge. The patient had agency and was on an equal footing with the medical staff. Mayer championed the idea that mental distress was a reaction to life’s stressors.

Keynote: Therapies of the world in ancient medicine,
Chiara Thumiger (Warwick)
This talk referenced Western classical texts and drew out themes of supporting people in distress. The speaker took us from Aristophanes offering words as solace, to the recommendation that speech, singing or reading can all help move the soul. Celsus’s therapy said that melancholic thoughts can be dissipated by ‘music, cymbals and noises’. Sleep was advocated as well as mimes and song.

Day 2

Keynote: Anomalous experiences and mental health, Elizabeth Roxburgh (Northampton)
Significant numbers believe in or experience anomalous experiences (AEs) which happen after trauma, abuse or bereavement. AEs do not necessarily cause distress, and can be normalised and validated. These are the phenomenon of mediumship, the spirit guide, haunting and poltergeists, psychic experiences, synchronicity, reincarnation/past life experiences, mystical experiences, spiritual crises and emergence – ‘breaking down is waking up’, non-ordinary states of consciousness (including psychosis), therianthropy (transformation into an animal/sensation of phantom limbs), out of body experiences, laying on of hands, and linked to the characteristics of highly sensitised and emphatic people.

Here, the best support could be a number of ways such as mindfulness, creative therapy, grounding, discontinuation of spiritual practice, retreat, calming practices, or medication. Therapeutic intervention needs to focus on understanding, not judgment or being scared or shocked. Questions were raised about how far therapy can go with certain AEs before other help (possibly psychiatric) may be needed.

Panel 5: Local adaptations 2 Psychotherapies in Chinese Culture

Dang-ki healing: an embodied relational healing, Boon-Ooi Lee and Laurence Kirmayer
Dang-ki is Chinese spirit mediumship – a human possessed by a spirit, called Dang-ki. The Dang-ki and the possessing deity are two separate entities. It is a healing system derived from Taoism and Buddhism. Possession allows the Dang-ki to embody an ideal self, and is performance-based. Clients drink and cleanse bodies with talismans prescribed by deities. Transformation occurs at the level of mythic narrative.

Study of the interaction between Western psychotherapy and psychotherapy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in China, Xiaojiao Wu.
There is a tension between these two psychotherapies. Traditionally, the Eastern style is to restore the balance within and with out, using Tai Chi, meditation, and Xi Gong, amongst others. The aim is to accept and embrace illness as an old friend; acceptance is recovery. Some Chinese people see Western psychotherapy as more advanced and scientific, thus losing confidence in the traditional. Both approaches are being promoted in China, and integrated models are being developed. It was highlighted that rapid industrialisation has produced a lot of distress in the country.

Panel 7: Local adaptations 3

Journey to the Centre of the Soul: Fishl Schneersohn’s Psycho-Expeditions between Modern Psychology and Jewish Mysticism, David Freis
Freis developed ideas while treating traumatised Jewish children after the Kiev pogroms when working as a doctor (he was also a rabbi). He used fairytales to uncover trauma, known as folk psychology or Volkerpsychologie. Freis wanted to examine human life in its totality and multiformity. His approach was an intersection of modern psychology and Jewish mysticism; a fusion of Freudian and Kabbalistic motives. He also believed in tapping and ‘ecstatic creativity’, such as circle dancing coming out of the Hassidic tradition.

Ingenia sanare: Seneca’s psychotherapeutical approach in ‘De Beneficis’, Ante Junghanb
Seneca had the idea of the importance of gratitude, and thought of ingratitude as a mental ‘illness’. His aim was to cure the citizen’s souls so that their actions would be a consequence of cognition. His approach examines the nucleus of Stoic ethics.

Body, gaze, alienation: Franco Basaglia’s phenomenological psychiatry, Irene Delodovici
Franco Basaglia raised public awareness and stimulated debate leading to the law closing asylums. When he became superintendent of Gorizia asylum the inmates were waterboarded, tied up and beaten, among other breaches of human rights. Basaglia completely changed everything with his open door policy. He created a therapeutic community, and aimed to return personal autonomy to the patient. Prior to 1968 patients was considered in custody – they had had to wear uniform and had no belongings.

It was a breath of fresh air to listen to such wide ranging and fascinating presentations. These themes and others should be mandatory at every training centre. There is a world outside the confines of Western psychotherapy!

With grateful thanks to Minster Centre for funding.

Polly Mortimer is  the librarian at the Minster Centre.



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