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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Women’s Pathways to Mental Health in India


In non-Western, medically plural societies, women experiencing mental distress invest greater faith in mystical-spiritual healing traditions than in biomedical psychiatry. In India as well, women predominate in magico-religious healing sites and are largely missing in psychiatric clinics. Psychiatric epidemiological data cite a ratio of one woman for every three men attending public health psychiatric outpatients’ clinics in urban India. Indian state officials view this as ‘under-utilization’ by suffering women, attributing it to the greater stigma attached to women’s mental illness that restricts help-seeking in public health facilities and/ or to the lower importance accorded to women’s health generally. Anthropologists, feminists, and other scholars of cross-cultural mental health attribute these facts, variously, to the empowering aspects of possession-trance states for women in patriarchal settings, to the oppression of biomedical psychiatry that repels women and/ or to the phenomenological construal of femininity that explains women’s greater affinity for afflictions related to spirit possession. However, all these explanations fail to speak for the complexity of women’s help-seeking behaviors in urban Indian settings and this paper aims to reason why that is the case. The highly polarized scholarly debates tend to establish superficial dichotomies by romanticizing traditional healing sites as emancipatory to women and psychiatry as essentially oppressive. Modernizing agents such as the public health enterprise constructs mystical-spiritual sites as signifiers of women’s backwardness. This paper argues for a more nuanced understanding that factors in the peculiarities of Indian psychiatry as well as traditional healing practices by adopting a comparative method that investigates both settings simultaneously.

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