Book Explores Treatment of Mentally Ill in Mexico

Dr. Beatriz Reyes-Foster


The attitudes toward mental illness, treatment options and overall quality of living at a Mexican hospital for the mentally ill provide a microcosm of Mexico’s overall attitude toward the mentally ill, according to a book by Beatriz Reyes-Foster, Ph.D., an associate professor of anthropology.

“The question that guided my work is ‘What can we learn from the interactions between the patients in the hospital and the healthcare providers? It is not so much about Mexican psychiatry, but more what it can teach us about life in contemporary Mexico,’” said Reyes-Foster, who spent a combined 18 months in Yucatan to write Psychiatric Encounters: Madness and Modernity in Yucatan, Mexico (2018, Rutgers University Press).

A major takeaway is the deep-seated legacy of colonialism. Despite 200 years of independence from Spain, inequalities based on race remain. Indigenous language speakers, the poverty-stricken and patients with darker skin were all treated differently inside and outside the institution, the book found. Corruption and bribery also contributed to the overall poor state of the treatment. This was not news to the patients and their families, which is why most waited until a major psychiatric emergency such as psychotic episodes or nearly lethal suicide attempts before taking a chance on commitment.

Conditions did improve at Reyes-Foster’s specific facility over the course of publishing the book. Amenities like air-conditioning were installed, and patients were given more freedoms like wearing their own clothing instead of uniforms. But underlying issues like a lack of psychiatrists — by some estimates .67 for every 100,000 people (the current US rate is 12 per 100,000 people) — and a deep cultural stigma attached to mental illness remain.

“There has to be a change at the societal level,” Reyes-Foster said. “It’s necessary to not only destigmatize mental illness, but address long-term medical disparities that have plagued Mexico since colonial times.”







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