Adolescent ‘Mass Hysteria’ in Post-Conflict Nepal: Ethnographic Impressions
In the wake of economic and political instability, high rates of unemployment and outmigration and the decade-long violence of the “People’s War,” increasing cases of “mass hysteria,” also known in Nepali as chhopne rog, among adolescents have been reported in government schools throughout Nepal. Investigating the phenomenon of mass chhopne rog, which affects mainly female adolescents in rural Nepal, this paper traces connections between new forces of social change which have taken shape in the post-conflict period, and the psychocultural dimensions of people’s lives. Why are adolescent girls disproportionally afflicted by chhopne rog and how might this be connected to relations of power? What is the public discourse on “mass hysteria” in Nepal, and how do families, healers, and psychiatrists understand, explain, and treat this illness? What is the nature of the experience of chhopne rog for people themselves, and how does it relate to the sociocultural and economic conditions in which they live their lives? Through a phenomenological, person-centered approach to ethnographic research, this work contributes towards understanding the ways in which subjectivity, an individual’s intimate, affective, emotional life– thoughts, desires, hopes, fears or dreams– takes form in particular historical, political, economic, and sociocultural contexts.
In Nepal, less than 1% of the total government health budget is allocated to mental health, with one psychiatrist per one million people (WHO and Ministry of Health 2006). Recent studies have identified suicide as the leading cause of death among young women of reproductive age in Nepal (Suvedi et al. 2009). While this study does not directly examine the problem of suicide, research focusing on adolescent chhopne rog will necessarily explore the cultural and social contexts of psychological distress among girls under the age of 18 and will contribute detailed ethnographic material regarding the psychocultural dimensions of adolescents’ lives in rural Nepal.
The contribution of this paper to anthropological theory lies in its overarching goal of exploring the relationship between new forces of social change and the psychocultural dimensions of adolescents’ lives through the examination of “mass hysteria,” a form of mental illness that has been understudied in the anthropological literature. In order to examine this relationship ethnographically, I draw from theoretical work in psychological anthropology to examine the subjective and intersubjective, relational dimensions experience; from medical anthropological studies of subjectivity; from interactional linguistic methods and forms of analysis; and from studies of gender, power, and resistance in sociocultural anthropology. By bringing person-centered research on subjective and intersubjective experience into conversation with discussions of gender, power, and resistance, this research contributes a new approach to the study of the relationship between mental health and gender, and broadens and builds bridges between psychological/medical anthropology and sociocultural anthropology. Additionally, by analyzing the multiple discourses, experiences, diagnoses and treatment of chhopne rog and “mass conversion disorder” in Nepal, this paper will advance further understanding of the cross-cultural translation of psychiatric categories, and the gender dimensions and hierarchies of knowledge and power present in processes of diagnosis.