Current Institutional Affiliation
Anthropology, City University of New York (CUNY) / Graduate Center

Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2017
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
Anthropology, City University of New York (CUNY) / Graduate Center
The Work of Care: Social Impacts and Political Dimensions of Psychological Counseling in Sri Lanka

This ethnographic study of psychological counseling in Sri Lanka examines the new categories and understandings of distress that therapeutic approaches are engendering and their political consequences. Psychological interventions proliferated in Sri Lanka since the 1980s in response to the war (1983-2009) and expanded after the 2004 Tsunami. In Sri Lanka, these interventions have been critiqued for being culturally inappropriate and for failing to address social and material dimensions of suffering. This echoes scholarly critiques, which argue that mental health approaches are individualizing and depoliticizing, whereby responsibility for distress is borne by the person experiencing it rather than understood as the effect of deleterious socio-economic and political conditions. However, psychological counseling remains a key component of psychosocial programs in Sri Lanka, expanding in the last 15 years beyond the work of NGOs in war- and tsunami-affected areas. It has been incorporated into public healthcare, education, and social welfare, among other state-provided services across the country. Yet we don't know why counseling, despite its proclaimed limitations, remains ubiquitous; how it is shaping people's understandings of distress and wellbeing; and how it has engaged with the political and economic nature of suffering in Sri Lanka's post-war context. This study asks, how are psychological discourse and practice shaping the way practitioners, clients and their families understand the nature of distress and mental health problems in contemporary Sri Lanka? In what ways does counseling depoliticize distress, and how does this process impact the forms of support and redress available to individuals and communities? The research thus examines how normative values, notions of justice and responsibility, and the meanings of distress are negotiated in counseling and the implications this has for political processes in Sri Lanka, including post-war reconciliation.