During the past six years I had the honor to serve WPA Transcultural Psychiatry Section as its chair. This experience was both very enjoyable and very productive for me. I hope it was equally so for the Section members.
Now I find myself in the newly appointed position of TPS Honorary Advisor, joining my friends Profs Wen-Shing Tseng, Wolfgang Jilek and Raymond Prince.
A young TPS member recently greeted me -and teased me- observing that my hair is just white enough to fit the criteria for an Honorary Advisor.
His comments brought to my mind the pleasant feeling of having reached that time of life when it is appropriate to continue my efforts to promote transcultural psychiatry from the relaxing position of the couch in my study, as I gaze across the orchards and vineyards in the valley below.
That very image came to mind at the XIII World Congress of Psychiatry in Cairo, in September. Following the TPS Business Meeting, I had the pleasure of having dinner with some close friends (all of them are Section members) at a marvellous terrace restaurant overlooking the Nile river.
It often happens that the best inner realizations occur after a day of hard work, when you are among good friends and -why not- enjoying a meal together. While gazing at the Nile’s gentle current that carries a natural synthesis of both African and Mediterranean cultures, I realized that this view reminded me that exactly 30 years earlier, I had sat alone, at a table in a nearby Cairo tavern, eating sandwiches in complete solitude.
I was on my way back to Italy from my first field research, with Bantu people in South Africa. I had arranged a stopover to visit Cairo, and to reflect on my experience in Africa and what my future might be like, before I immersed myself again in the academic life of the Dept of Psychiatry at the University of Rome ( see my detailed bio-sketch in WACP website: www. waculturalpsy.org).
In the tavern, I was aware of a sort of dichotomy: no doubts about my passion to continue my work in transcultural psychiatry, but…where would it take me? At that time I was probably one of the few Italian physicians who had decided to be fully involved in this new discipline.
Now, in 2005, on the beautiful restaurant terrace overlooking the Nile, I was brought back from my reveries to confront a sort of “nearly-new-life-experience”. I emerged from my withdrawal to focus on the lively dinner-table discussion of my friends, in order to work through my emotions about my long-past visit to Cairo, but also, and most importantly, to try to get some hint of the future.
The future, in this case, is characterized by the greatly increased worldwide recognition in recent times of the relevance of transcultural psychiatry. Scholars of transcultural psychiatry are increasing in number and in disciplinary perspectives: from comparison of different illness presentations to the validation of different medical epistemologies.
WPA’s Transcultural Psychiatry Section has been in the forefront of promoting a flexible and anti-dogmatic approach to the diagnosis and healing of mental disturbances. Starting from the founding WPA-TPS in 1971, the Section has given to psychiatry as a whole a strong impulse, acting both as an incubator of scientific advances and as a meeting point for students of transcultural psychiatry around the world who had felt isolated, and had difficulty finding an environment that supported their work and encouraged the exchange of ideas with like-minded colleagues.
The first jointly-sponsored meeting of the Society for the Study of Psychiatry and Culture and WPA-TPS, held in Providence (USA) in Oct 2004, has warmed the psychological climate and has led to the cooperative planning of organizational initiatives among SSPC, WPA-TPS and the new established WACP; and in so doing, has demonstrated the willingness of the world’s scholars in TP to maintain a common epistemological focus, independent of the national psychiatric associations each of us is involved with.
While flying over the placid waters of the Nile on my way back to Rome to encounter the culture-harassed waters of the Tiber that lap at the edges of St Peter’s Square, the Mithra grottos, the tomb of Caesar and the Capitoline Hill, I had the strong feeling that we, as cultural psychiatrists, once again are about to become engaged with, interpret and try to solve, a wide range of issues that confront people everywhere with the turbulence of rapid historical and cultural change.
April 5, 2006