Remnants of humanity: psychiatry and post-socialism in the Czech Republic 1989-2010
MetadataShow full item record
This thesis explores the roles that medicine, human rights discourse, and the arts play in the project to improve the lives of patients suffering from severe forms of mental illness in the context of the post-socialist transformation of the Czech Republic. It is a study of the ways in which social solidarity and social exclusion intersect in the spaces of mental illness in a particular historical setting, and how the responsibility for care is negotiated between families, communities, the medical profession, and the state. The first part of the thesis focuses on the proposed reform of care for patients with severe mental illness that was put forward in the two decades after 1989. I examine the origins and aims of the attempted institutional change – the ‘humanization of psychiatry’ – in the context of the influential Charter 77 movement which demanded respect for the rights of those who are unable to claim them for themselves. I also trace how the re-establishment of a civil society that owed much to the concept of ‘apolitical politics’ and the process of the reintegration of Czech Republic into the European community impacted the attempted reforms. More than twenty years after the revolution, Czech Psychiatry still does not comply with international standards of care and, as I show, despite the explicit disclaimer with the totalitarian past and great hopes for change, there is in fact a clear continuation of many of the practices, ideas, interactions, as well as forms of governance of the preceding decades. These historical legacies, in combination with other factors, such as ideological disagreements within the psychiatric profession, a lack of political interest in this area, and a strong focus on other economic priorities have all contributed to the failure to improve mental health care. The second part of the thesis offers a complementary perspective on these processes – a view from ‘inside’ of the institutions that provide psychiatric care. The origins of institutional care in Central Europe date back to late nineteenth century, when large hospitals were built within parks as self-sufficient complexes surrounded by walls, outside of large cities. My research took place in two contrasting institutions: one a highly specialised clinical and research center for treatment of acute conditions, and the other a hospital for treatment of chronic conditions originally devoted to those with ‘incurable’ conditions. I show how the notion of ‘curability’ is a crucial factor in both the experience of the patients and the social responses to their conditions. In this part I also explore some epistemological issues in psychiatry, including knowledge, practices, and ideology, in the context of a strong scientific materialism where – unlike in many parts of the world – the tradition of psychoanalysis has been absent. Specifically, I examine the role of neurobiological paradigm in various interpretations of psychotic experience, its affect on patient’s self-understanding, and its role in the externalization of agency and responsibility. Finally I address the phenomenon of using ‘unclaimed bodies’ of psychiatric patients for anatomical teaching and research, and interpret this practice through notions of liminality, impurity, and sacrifice. I conclude the thesis by examining the ethical dimension of psychiatric care in the light of the writings by Emmanuel Lévinas.