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Accepted paper:

Throwing pills at the problem: an ethnographic study of mental health interventions and the self-reliance agenda in a refugee settlement in northern Uganda


Costanza Torre (London School of Economics and Political Science)

Paper short abstract:

This paper is an ethnographic study of mental health interventions in a refugee settlement in Uganda,and of their relationship to the country's self-reliance policy.It shows that in this context mental health interventions are used to psychiatrize and disengage with issues of poverty and inequality.

Paper long abstract:

This paper offers an ethnographic study of mental health interventions in a refugee settlement in Uganda, and of their relationship to the country's much praised refugee policy. Uganda currently hosts more than a million South Sudanese refugees fleeing a brutal and ongoing conflict. Under Uganda's self-reliance policy, often enthusiastically depicted as an internationally relevant "humanitarian success story", refugees are encouraged to become economically independent actors. The reality of life in displacement in Uganda is, however, much bleaker, and people often struggle to overcome structural and socio-economic obstacles that make effective self-reliance at best hard to achieve. Given both the brutality of the conflict in South Sudan and the deep insecurity of the current displacement in Uganda, the mental health and psychosocial needs of the refugee population have several times been described as dire and largely unmet. Drawing on 12 months of in-depth ethnographic fieldwork in the refugee settlement of Palabek, northern Uganda, this paper argues that mental health interventions are anything but neutral actors in the Ugandan refugee response, directly supporting the "self-reliance agenda" by establishing an explicit connection between mental health and economic self-sufficiency. Consequently, people who struggle to navigate an uncertain economic landscape and to rebuild their lives in a displacement setting where assistance is constantly reduced are often diagnosed with Major Depression and prescribed psychotropic medication.In the context of Palabek refugee settlement, mental health interventions become therefore a powerful tool for the humanitarian apparatus to psychiatrize, and ultimately effectively disengage with, issues of poverty and inequality.

panel AA08
Trajectories of refuge: protracted displacement and humanitarian responses