2021 | Culture & Community Mental Health Speaker Series



Date Speaker Title

December 9

Rasmus Birk, PhD

“This city is not doable anymore”: On psychological ecologies and ‘idioms of urban distress’ in Southeast London

April 22

Michele Lancione, PhD

Planning as dispossession: Abstracting race & class through the ‘bloc’

April 1

Aidan Seale-Feldman, PhD

“The World is Like This”: Life, Loss, and the Trembling Thought of Disaster

March 25

Emily Ng, PhD

Walking the Chairman’s Path: Spirit Mediumship and Psychopolitical Transmission

February 4

Tomas Matza, PhD

Between Politics and Policy: Psychic Life as an Object of Intervention in Russia and El Salvador




Rasmus Birk


In this presentation, I will take my point of departure in the many quantitative studies that have demonstrated empirical relationships between living in cities and the development of mental distress. Specifically, I will explore some of the ways experiences of distress become entangled with experiences of, and reflections on, urban life more broadly. Drawing on the well-known concept of ‘idioms of distress’, I will use qualitative empirical materials to illustrate how young people living in Southeast London use ‘idioms of urban distress’. These idioms of urban distress both reflect culturally available repertoires about contemporary, precarious urban life and they are simultaneously expressions of particular experiences of mental distress. I will argue that this suggests that, in a time of increasing focus on urban mental health, there is a need for conceptual and empirical engagement with how particular ‘psychological ecologies’ furnish us with ways of reflecting on and experiencing the world.


Rasmus Birk is Assistant Professor in Psychology at the Department of Communication & Psychology, Aalborg University, Denmark, and Affiliated Research Associate at King’s College London. His work explores topics such as the relationships between urban life and mental health, the rise of “digital phenotyping”, and the development of novel (neuro)ecosocial theories for understanding, conceptualizing and theorizing mental health.



Michele Lancione


Michele Lancione is Professor of Economic and Political Geography at the Polytechnic of Turin, Italy, and Visiting Professor of Urban Studies at the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom. He is co-founder and editor of the Radical Housing Journal and corresponding editor at IJURR.




Aidan Seale-Feldman


What does it mean to lose a world? And what role might psychosocial counselling play in repairing a world destroyed? In the Spring of 2015, as I was conducting fieldwork, Nepal was struck by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake and 7.3 magnitude aftershock. Over 9,000 people died and half a million lost their homes. In response to the seismic rupture, humanitarian psychosocial projects arrived with funding to mitigate an emergent “mental health crisis” in a country where mental health had not yet been incorporated into the health care system. As psychosocial counselors flooded the 14 affected districts, over 300,000 “beneficiaries” received psychiatric and psychosocial support services, many for the first time in their lives. Based on collaborative ethnographic research alongside a leading Nepali NGO, this talk follows individual and group counseling sessions in an earthquake-affected region where the ground had not yet stopped shaking. Landslides, aftershocks, and the ongoing deconstruction of the earth generated existential dizziness and discussions about the nature of the world, sansar. Assembled in the midst of ruins and rubble, group counselling sessions did not primarily operate as conduits of “therapeutic governance,” but as sites of geophilosophy where people dreamed, despaired, and critically reflected on existence. By attending to the relational dimensions of the therapeutic encounter and the forms of thought that emerge in response to a trembling world, this talk reconsiders anthropological and philosophical reflections on life, world, and loss in times of disaster.


Aidan Seale-Feldman is a Postdoctoral Research Associate and Lecturer in Bioethics at the University of Virginia. Her work explores the ethics, politics, and psychic life of disaster. Based on two years of ethnographic fieldwork in Nepal before and after the 2015 earthquakes, her research focuses on the biopolitics of mental health governance, the existential dimensions of disaster, and the forms of care that emerge in disaster’s wake. In Nepal, she has also conducted research on gender, “mass hysteria,” and the movement of affliction across bodies, worlds, and generations. For the past two years she has served as co-editor of Screening Room, an experimental ethnographic film series hosted on the Society for Cultural Anthropology’s Visual and New Media Review. She received her PhD in Anthropology from the University of California, Los Angeles.



Emily Ng


Emily Ng is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her work centers on madness and subjectivity, religion and cosmopolitics, and how historical worlds and wounds reverberate across geographies and generations. She is interested in how psychic life can offer a site for rethinking politics, and how the symptom can be approached across scales. Ng has conducted ethnographic research in urban and rural China, and alongside her anthropological work, she has trained clinically as a therapist. Her book A Time of Lost Gods: Mediumship, Madness, and the Ghost after Mao explores madness between psychiatric and cosmological registers, and personhood between generational impasse, crises of sovereignty, and haunting. Drawing on research at the hospital, the temple, and the home altars of spirit mediums, the book traces a different vision of the post-Mao present than those in more common accounts of secularization and revival. Recently, she has been working on sensory experiences of the unseen across religious communities in China.



Tomas Matza


My research has explored the culture and politics of mental health through two distinct ethnographic projects—one in Saint Petersburg, Russia; the other in El Salvador. Several key questions unite these projects: How do authoritative discourses and practices (psychology, global (mental) health) organize interiority and transform the terms by which people understand themselves, their capabilities and their relationships with others? How might we as scholars theorize human potentiality and sociality while carefully attending to the power relations that saturate therapeutic encounters? In Russia, my ethnographic research examined the psychotherapy boom that accompanied marketization. There I discovered an intimate (and awkward) linkage between psychological work, neoliberalism, class formation, and progressive social reform. In El Salvador, I examined the ways in which US researchers and NGO staff worked to adapt psychological theories (e.g. attachment) into local interventions into child well-being. There I found tensions between the will to care, the modular scalability of “evidence,” and local, structural realities. In each case, psychic life was fundamentally political. And in each case, the psychological was not so much a means of control as a complex medium for politico-ethical action. This talk draws together these two projects in order to theorize the politics of psychic life.




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