That the world is currently going through a complex and critical phase in its history is an understatement. The background is multifaceted: violence of all types with a different kind of war (but war anyway) at its peak, large migrations in all regions, religion transformed in terrorist codes and strategies with tragically massive sequelae, and politics in many countries (starting with the US) reaching levels of cheap TV shows or grotesque deformity by the words and actions of some of its protagonists. And the main victim, in addition to all the innocent lives of those who died or were injured (physically and emotionally) is humanity itself, the essence of its raison d’etre—culture—as both the repository of history and the expression of our human identity.
Culture is being demolished by grenades, guns, and incendiary speeches. And the world’s mental health is being threatened as never before by viruses of hatred, fanaticism, frivolousness, and a technology-based infectious chain. The challenges to psychiatry as the clinical armor of mental health, and to cultural psychiatry as its vanguard platoon, are indeed enormous in these dramatic and confusing times.
The preceding may sound exaggerated but an objective and close examination of worldwide events these days, conveyed by the media, social networks, or word-of-mouth, confirm the seriousness of the situation. Almost daily attacks by unknown assailants in malls, train stations, bars, churches, or in the streets reflect the contagious nature of violence—be that the result of dysmorphic preaching or the action of “lonely wolves.” Religious and even ethical principles used as reasons to kill, dressed up by coward anonymity, have used European and American cities as worldwide stages. A re-invigorated racism and its mixed-up dialectics play with fear, apprehension, or sheer ignorance to make public places or dark neighborhoods scenarios of death, invoking at times the name of the law. Homicide and suicide-related deaths have increased as a consequence.
The cultural and mental implications of all these behaviors cannot be neglected. Migration within countries or regions has been a phenomenon present for centuries around the world. To mostly socio-economic and occupational needs as main causes of migration, others have been added in the last several decades: prolonged internal political conflicts, religious wars, cruel political persecutions, bloody massive expulsions, or voluntary exile.
The other big differences are the size and frequency of the migratory waves, particularly between the Middle East and European countries, in the African continent, and the ever-present flow of Hispanics into the US.
International bureaucratic and professional organizations (World Health Organization, World Psychiatric Association, World Association of Cultural Psychiatry) have made strong pronouncements, urging governments and other agencies to study, plan, and intervene in the alleviation and prevention of the health and mental health consequences of migrations, clinical pictures of which fragilities, rejection, resentment, and uncertainties are substantial ingredients.
Moreover, we cannot deny that the political picture of the most powerful country in the world presents evidences of circus and polarization, showmanship and distrust, that make it “different.” The problem is that the “difference” now is not ideological or doctrinal; particularly on one side of the current campaign, it is the accentuation of hate, the use of stereotypes and insults as arguments, the not-too-disguised lies or the not-too-subtle incitements to overt violence. And this fact, violence, is precisely where all the occurrences in today’s world (war, terrorism, migrations, politics) converge and show their shared umbrella.
Dr. Alarcón is Emeritus Professor and Consultant in the department of psychiatry and psychology at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Rochester, MN, and an Editorial Board member of Psychiatric Times.