Anthropology and/of Mental Health Part 1

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In this episode, Contributing Editor Anar Parikh interviews Professor Beatriz Reyes-Foster (University of Central Florida) and Professor Rebecca J. Lester (Washington University in St. Louis) about their recent edited blog series, "Trauma and Resilience in Ethnographic Fieldwork" on Anthrodendum. The series, produced in collaboration with the Anthropology of Mental Health Interest Group, features contributions from anthropologists at various stages of their careers who share their stories about dealing with, and overcoming, traumatic experiences while conducting ethnographic fieldwork.

Anar talks to Professor Reyes-Foster and Professor Lester about their motivation for pursuing this project, the consequences of ethnographic trauma on the discipline, and the need for better support for graduate students—not only in anthropology, but across all the disciplines. The episode also includes readings from Greg Beckett and Chelsey Carter, who have shared excerpts from their contribution to the Trauma and Resilience Series.


Beatriz Reyes-Foster, PhD is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Central
Florida. A sociocultural and medical anthropologist, she is the author of Psychiatric Encounters: Madness and Modernity in Yucatan, Mexico (Rutgers, 2018). She has published numerous articles on mental health, suicide, and Maya identity and culture.

Rebecca J. Lester is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis and a licensed clinical social worker specializing in eating disorders, trauma, personality disorders, and self-harm. As an anthropologist and a clinician, she is passionate about how anthropology's theoretical and methodological insights can contribute to on-the-ground action that reaches beyond the academy, as well as how real-world engagements can inform and transform the purposes and practices of anthropology. She is the incoming president of the Society for Psychological Anthropology and is editor-in-chief of the journal Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry. Author of numerous academic articles and the award-winning book Jesus in Our Wombs, her new book, Famished: Eating Disorders and Failed Care in America, will be released November 2019.

Greg Beckett is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Western University, in Canada. He specializes in the study of crisis, disaster, and trauma from the standpoint of moral experience.

Chelsey Carter is an MPH/PhD candidate in anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis (USA) with a graduate certificate in women, gender, and sexuality studies. Her forthcoming dissertation project examines how knowledge is produced about ALS and how Black people with neuromuscular diseases (like ALS) navigate healthcare spaces and experience care by healthcare institutions in St. Louis.


This episode was produced by Anar Parikh. Special thanks to Beatriz Reyes-Foster and Rebecca Lester for their willingness to have this conversation, as well as to Greg Beckett and Chelsey Carter for sharing excerpts of their written work in audio format. Endless gratitude to Marios Falaris for his editorial support, and Raphaëlle Rabanes, the Executive Producer of this episode, for her support in seeing this episode to publication

Intro and outro: All the Colors in the World by Podington Bear.
Transitions: Twosome by Podington Bear.
Logo designed by Janita van Dyk.


Beckett, Greg. 2019. "Staying with the Feeling: Trauma, Humility and Care in Ethnographic Fieldwork." Anthrodendum, June 22.

Carter, Chelsey. 2019. "Homework: The Highs and Lows of Anthropology at Home." June 27.

Reyes-Foster, Beatriz and Rebecca J. Lester, eds. 2019. "Trauma and Resilience in Ethnographic Fieldwork." Anthrodendum, June 18.


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Anar Parikh [00:00:15] Welcome to Anthropod. My name is Anar Parikh. I'm one of the contributing editors on the Anthropod team and the host of this episode, the first in a two part series titled "Anthropology and/of Mental Health." This project emerges from a set of questions I have about how anthropology's particular methodological and theoretical formations inform my own and other anthropologists' experiences with mental illness and wellness. In full disclosure, I'm not trained in the anthropology of mental health, but these questions emerge from my reflections on being assigned to T.A. an anthropology of mental health course the semester after I returned to graduate school following a year long mental health leave. This series furthers a conversation Aisha Sultan initiated in her recent episode "When Fieldwork Breaks Your Heart" about how to grapple with the quotidian reality of trauma and violence many anthropologists witness and experience while conducting ethnographic fieldwork. More broadly, I want to ask why, despite the robust scholarship on anthropology's intersections with psychiatry and psychoanalysis and their interest in the cultural, political, medical, and social dimensions of mental illness, aren't we able to acknowledge how anthropologists also experience the very structures and phenomena we interrogate in our scholarly work? My hope is that this series will facilitate a broader public dialog between students and advisers in anthropology departments and across the discipline. In this installment, I talked to Professor Beatriz Reyes-Foster of University of Central Florida and Professor Rebecca Lester of Washington University in St. Louis about their recent blog series, "Trauma and Resilience in Ethnographic Fieldwork" on Anthrodendum. The blog series is an initiative of the Anthropology and Mental Health Interest Group within the Society for Medical Anthropology. It explores how encounters of genocide, human suffering, and other forms of violence impact the ethnographers' psyche. In our interview, we talk about why they decided to pursue this project, the consequences of ethnographic trauma both on individuals and on the discipline and the need for better support for graduate students in anthropology and in the academy as a whole. In addition to my interview with Beatriz Reyes-Foster and Rebecca Lester, you will also hear from Greg Beckett, assistant professor of anthropology at Western Ontario University, and Chelsey Carter Ph.D.-M.P.H. candidate in the Department of Anthropology and the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. Greg and Chelsey will share excerpts of their contributions to the Trauma and Resilience series.

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Anar Parikh [00:02:56] I'm joined by Beatriz Reyes-Foster and Rebecca Lester, who are at the Society for Psychological Anthropology Biennial Meeting in Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico. Thank you both for taking the time out of the busy conference schedule to chat with me.

Rebecca Lester [00:03:10] Happy to be here!

Anar Parikh [00:03:12] You both have long careers in anthropology and have conducted research on topics related to medical anthropology, anthropology of mental health, and gender and sexuality. Beatriz, can you tell us a little bit about your work?

Beatriz Reyes-Foster [00:03:24] Yes, of course. So I have been conducting ethnographic research in Yucatán since 2003, and I became very interested in mental health care and psychiatry in the course of my dissertation research. I conducted research in a psychiatric hospital in Yucatán in 2008 and then again in 2012 and briefly in 2013. And that is the source of the data for my for my book, Psychiatric Encounters Madness of Modernity in Yucatán, Mexico. My current work has been on reproductive health in central Florida, although that project is wrapping up. I'm finishing a manuscript on human milk sharing in central Florida.

Anar Parikh [00:04:04] And Rebecca, you've worked on mental illness in a variety of contexts, including disordered eating, welfare, reform policies, and suicide. Can you talk about your research trajectory?

Rebecca Lester [00:04:15] Sure. So I began with an interest in the relationship between psychiatry and anthropology in my graduate training and the way that my research has really evolved over time . . . I've worked my way, as you mentioned, through a lot of different projects. And what really connects all of them is an interest in how people experience and manage profound existential distress in a variety of ways and how different social and cultural institutions arise and function to help them navigate that distress. So that's really been the thread. I started off working in a religious context, actually, so not so much a mental health focus, but similar questions about how people make sense of their place in the world and how different institutional and cultural techniques can help them do that. And I've worked my way in and around a number of different projects and just have finished a long term project on eating disorder treatment in the United States. The book based on that work is coming out in November of 2019. It's called Famished: Eating Disorders and Failed Care in America. It looks at some of these similar issues, but within the context of the American mental health system.

Anar Parikh [00:05:25] That sounds fascinating, thank you.

Anar Parikh [00:05:27] And so at the SPA conference this year, you all are part of a roundtable discussion about the dimensions of ethnographic research, starting from doing fieldwork all the way to publishing. And the folks on your panel do research in a variety of field sites and research topics. But one of the organizing concepts for the roundtable is the question of how to do engaged and activist ethnography in psychological anthropology. So I'm curious about what engaged or activist ethnography has looked for each of you in your respective careers.

Beatriz Reyes-Foster [00:05:58] That has been a difficult question to navigate in the context of my research, particularly the mental health research. And so the way in which I have come to engage in what I consider to be engaged anthropology is not necessarily through the ethnography, but through the work I am doing in the wake of the ethnography. So I currently serve as a country conditions expert in immigration proceedings on behalf of people who are seeking asylum or protection from deportation. And these are people who are generally severely mentally ill and they are making an asylum claim based on the country conditions of mental health care facilities in Mexico. And so that is how I have really begun translating the work that I did in Mexico into what I see as positive action in the world.

Rebecca Lester [00:06:48] Yes. As for me, I was introduced to more activist or engaged anthropology approaches while I was writing up my dissertation, actually. I lived in New York City at the time and I began working with the anthropologist Kim Hopper in New York City, who some of your listeners may be familiar with, who works on homelessness and mental illness. And I was working as an ethnographer on a project that he was the leader of. And really that introduced me to the possibilities and in my view, the necessity of psychological anthropologists to be more proactively engaged in how our work can interface with policy and practice. And so in more recent years, with my eating disorder work, I've been very actively engaged in a number of initiatives in addition to becoming clinically trained, a clinician and working in that sort of engagement. I've been very focused on the policy front, particularly in the state of Missouri, but also nationally, looking at how ethnographic work and anthropological insights can inform policy that that has a profound impact on people's lives in the kinds of care that they receive.

Anar Parikh [00:07:53] Beatriz, you mentioned that a lot of your engaged work has come (in terms of what you're doing in the field) in addition to the ethnographic work. I'm curious about whether you think or feel like there's something about the ethnographic work that makes it difficult for the ethnographic research itself to be engaged in the kinds of context that you're doing fieldwork in.

Beatriz Reyes-Foster [00:08:16] Well, partly the problem is that the fieldwork ended. I have not done research in mental health and psychiatric settings in Mexico since 2013. And the other challenge, too, is that the situation on the ground is just constantly changing because of the nature of Mexico's sociopolitical realities. And so with every election, there is tremendous upheaval and so it's actually kind of difficult to find your ground.

Anar Parikh [00:08:46] So currently you're both working on a project about mental health and ethnographic fieldwork sponsored by the Anthropology and Mental Health Interest Group that will take the form of a blog series at Anthrodendum. And I'd like to get talking about the series, but first, can you talk a little bit about the Anthropology of Mental Health Interest Group, what it is and what its goals and interests are?

Rebecca Lester [00:09:09] Yes, absolutely. So I'm the co-chair of the Anthropology and Mental Health Interest Group, along with Michael Duke and the interest group is part of the Society for Medical Anthropology. It seeks to bridge the gap between the work of the Society for Psychological Anthropology and the Society for Medical Anthropology. It welcomes perspectives from both anthropologists who consider themselves psychological anthropologists and anthropologists who consider themselves medical anthropologists. But it also includes practitioners and activists, and so people who are not even necessarily academics, but actually are active in the community in different ways. And the goal is to kind of create a space for conversations to happen around the role of anthropology and mental health.

Anar Parikh [00:10:00] And can you talk a little bit about maybe the disjuncture and coming together between psychological anthropology and medical anthropology in terms of just briefly where each of those subfields of anthropology see themselves in terms of how they think about mental health?

Beatriz Reyes-Foster [00:10:19] Wow, that's a giant question.

Anar Parikh [00:10:24] OK.

Beatriz Reyes-Foster [00:10:25] I mean, I'll take a stab at it and then Rebecca can. That's OK.

Anar Parikh [00:10:30] I know it's a big question, but maybe just to give people who are listening a little bit of a background about what the maybe points of intersection are.

Beatriz Reyes-Foster [00:10:39] So I would start by saying that I think that the two have maybe different genealogies. So I think of psychological anthropology kind of tracing its roots back maybe to like Ruth Benedict and culture and personality and psychoanalytic anthropology. And of course it has evolved over time, but that's its history, its origin story, so to speak. Whereas medical anthropology starts really from an interest in looking at medicine in society, even perhaps from a more biomedical perspective at first. And then it has kind of evolved over time and moved towards more critical models. And so the intersection of both when we look at mental health care, it comes from a shifting perspective in society, I think, that now sees mental health as health rather than something else.

Rebecca Lester [00:11:40] I would completely agree with that, I think that was beautifully articulated, Beatriz. They do come at the question of mental health from slightly different directions, but that really come together in the contemporary moment with an interest in how health systems and cultural practices interface with the experience of subjective well-being or distress.

Anar Parikh [00:12:03] Thank you. So the Anthrodendum series is called "Trauma and Resilience in Ethnographic Fieldwork," and it's meant to look at ethnographers' experience of trauma and mental illness during their fieldwork. And I guess the way that I see it, this is slightly different, though not wholly unrelated to the anthropology of mental health, in that it shifts attention towards how and anthropologists live their mental health, especially in their professional work. So can you talk a little bit about the motivation behind this particular project?

Rebecca Lester [00:12:36] Yes, well, we've been talking about this for a number of years, actually. And it arose from a couple of different places primarily, I mean, I don't want to speak for Beatriz, but for me anyway, arising out of some of my own experience working in this field and also that of graduate students and feeling like there was a really unexplored and unarticulated set of experiences going on that were profoundly shaping the way that people were understanding information they were getting in the field and how they were writing about it and processing it. That is something that we as a discipline really need to start talking about in a new way.

Beatriz Reyes-Foster [00:13:12] Yes. So that's very much how the conversation started. Rebecca [and I] actually met for coffee at the AAAs a few years ago. And we started talking first about the way in which we do or rather don't prepare graduate students for the potential of encountering traumatic experiences in the field, personally, the fieldwork that I was doing in a psychiatric hospital took a really, really deep emotional toll that I wasn't necessarily prepared for. And so what got me thinking about kind of creating a blog post. We had originally just thought about writing something ourselves. And then we realized, wait a minute, there's all these other stories that we should include, all these other experiences. But it's rooted in my own experience with trauma and with secondary trauma in the field. And then talking with other anthropologists who in just casual conversation would reveal that they had either stopped doing fieldwork because it just became too difficult emotionally or they just couldn't get started writing because writing through the experiences was just was just too hard. And I realized that this is a conversation that isn't happening in kind of the discourse of our discipline, even though it's happening, you know, maybe in the hallways of departments. So it seems that it is a very timely moment to produce and put this series out into the world.

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Greg Beckett [14:43]

I don’t remember when it happened, but at some point, I began to respond to questions about my research with a feeling of dread. I wanted to say that it was going badly, or that the research was good but the situation was horrible, that I was sad and angry and that many of my friends and informants in Haiti were in worse shape. Many of them were dead. I wanted to say all of that, but I didn’t. I had come to think of fieldwork as something anthropologists were supposed to love doing, and I felt that if I dreaded going back there must be something wrong with me. I had internalized what might be one of the most self-destructive aspects of our discipline—the idea that fieldwork is a baptism by fire from which only the strong survive.

It is only recently that I have come to think of my fieldwork experiences in the language of trauma. I had been studying crisis and disaster in Haiti for years, studying how crisis feels to those who live with it every day. That meant I was absorbing countless stories of trauma, while also living through disastrous events. Yet, I avoided any acknowledgment of this reality. Avoidance is, after all, a key symptom of trauma, and I sought refuge in the defensive posture of intellectual rigor and high theory, and when that didn’t work, in numbness or in the pseudo-safety of shutting down.

Everything changed after I began to think of my experiences in the language of trauma in the context of therapy. This reframing helped me come to terms with my own experiences. It is a long journey, and like many who live with PTSD, I still have images I cannot shake. But reframing also helped in another way: it forced me to rethink my fieldwork as a whole, not just my personal experiences, but the stories of those with whom I worked too. I began to hear and see—to feel—in my notes a much deeper, more profound record of existential struggle. My therapist would often encourage me to “stay with the feeling,” and the more I did that with my fieldnotes, the richer the material became, and the more I began to understand—to really understand—about how crisis felt. This in turn made me rethink ethnography, as method and genre.

Anar Parikh [00:17:12] This definitely wasn't a part of the conversation in my early training or even sort of my training as a graduate student, but spaces like Twitter have really opened up what is possible to talk about in terms of the sort of grittier aspects of the discipline rather than just the things that we tout as its strengths. So how does the series sort of approach the question of trauma and mental illness? And maybe you can talk about this without giving away too much, of course, but the submissions you've received and sort of how you plan to organize this series of posts.

Rebecca Lester [00:17:49] Yes, well, the call for the series was very was broadly framed because we really wanted to invite responses from and submissions from, you know, a whole range of people with a range of experiences. And we wanted it to really reflect the diversity of the field and diversity of the kinds of encounters that people were having in the field, as well as the kinds of ways that they have developed to manage it post-fieldwork as well or during fieldwork and post-fieldwork. As for submissions, we received far more than we could accommodate, which is both wonderful and difficult, of course. We wish we could accommodate everybody. But really excellent submissions from a range of people that, you know, cover things from all around the world. Different phases of training and fieldwork and different struggles that people have had in the ways that they've dealt with them.

Anar Parikh [00:18:37] We started talking about this a little bit, but by nature of the topics that we study as anthropologists and the way that it demands social and emotional labor, prolonged separation from our friends and families means that fieldwork can be emotionally and physically taxing, even traumatic. And you talked about students for whom this really affected the way that they were processing their data. So what does this mean for knowledge production and our discipline or how our stress and trauma as anthropologists inform what we can create and theorize?

Rebecca Lester [00:19:10] Well, I think yeah, that's a fantastic question and really a challenging one. You know, in thinking about this issue, it would be very difficult as an ethnographer of the human experience of any sort to not encounter trauma and suffering. I think we would have to work very hard to isolate ourselves from that. And that would, of course, be a very artificial representation of any sort of human life. So I'm not sure that it's something that can be avoided. At the same time, I do think that there is a trend that we've seen certainly over the past fifteen, twenty years in our field to amplify the degree and the spectacularity of suffering that we engage. And so that's maybe a separate issue about how the discipline capitalizes on trauma or how we're mentored to do so and what kinds of effects that has. So I think there's two separate issues there about, you know, it is something that we're going to encounter in the field, but then how does it get used or leveraged in the academic setting?

Beatriz Reyes-Foster [00:20:15] And then I also think just kind of on a different level, it affects knowledge production in that a severe enough experience can derail someone's career.

Rebecca Lester [00:20:23] Absolutely.

Beatriz Reyes-Foster [00:20:24] And can make it, you know, a student who is unprepared to deal with it or who is unsupported. Actually, I wouldn't even say unprepared. Who is unsupported.

Rebecca Lester [00:20:33] Yeah.

Beatriz Reyes-Foster [00:20:34] Is more likely to just not finish their dissertation to drop out, to walk away. And I think it affects knowledge production in that way as well.

Rebecca Lester [00:20:42] Absolutely. Totally agree with that.

Anar Parikh [00:20:45] Of course, these like questions of trauma and resilience take shape differently along lines of race, gender, indigeneity, sexuality, and other kinds of marginalized positions that people have as they go into their fieldwork.

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Chelsey Carter [21:04]

White Supremacy in Action.

This entire encounter at the hospital with my mom reminded me of an experience with a White participant a few months back. He was enrolling in a genetics study that the ALS lab was recruiting patients for. I walked in the room and was mesmerized by the patient’s sleeve of colorful tattoos. Aiden had recently gotten a similar sleeve and I was in a habit of fawning over the color and details of each tattoo.

The room was cold, and he and his wife were tense. So, as I felt the gentleman’s veins, I complimented his tattoos trying to engage him in a lighthearted conversation before drawing thirteen tubes of blood. The room instantly got even colder. I looked up and he said to me “I’m not proud of all of them. Some were some mistakes I made when I was younger.” As he finished his sentence, I found a bouncy vein in the middle of his right arm. I stepped back to grab the alcohol wipe and then realized the reason for their coldness. The vein I was about to puncture was right at the center of a swastika. I hesitated and silently continued drawing his blood, never saying another word. I felt like I was in the episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” when Dr. Miranda Bailey operates on the racist with the swastika.

Rebecca Lester [00:22:57] Absolutely. I mean, when we come into training, we come as full people with our own, you know, our own histories and experiences, and some people are disproportionately burdened with things at the beginning of fieldwork, or beginning of training. And then layered on top of that is the fieldwork experience and, you know, perhaps not being supported in ways that are aware of or recognizing those additional sets of issues that are going on.

Beatriz Reyes-Foster [00:23:24] And we don't talk about that enough as a discipline. I mean, we are, we remain a very white discipline. And so for those of us who are people of color or who belong to groups that are that are different in some way, our experiences as anthropologists are different. And it's really not something that we . . . Well, we have that conversation amongst ourselves, but we don't have it as a discipline. And so one of the things that I'm very excited about, what the series is, that we actually are including a variety of perspectives from fieldworkers who occupy all kinds of different statuses in society.

Anar Parikh [00:24:04] Yes, and I think it's also really important, Rebecca, I think you mentioned that it's not just at the beginning of fieldwork, but also during various parts of the training process, including while we're doing coursework or, you know, well after your initial dissertation research has taken place in terms of whether your research is legitimized or your sort of method and approach that you take to your research is seen as valid within the discipline based on all of these various lines of difference or even cognitive difference. And so on a potentially more hopeful note, the series seems to be interested as much as it is in the experience of trauma and mental illness as it is about how those experiences were overcome. So maybe we can talk a little bit about why resilience is also such an important part of this process.

Rebecca Lester [00:24:58] Well, one thing I want to say is I think for a lot of the people that submitted to the blog series, it's not necessarily that the trauma has been overcome. A lot of people are still in the midst of kind of trying to figure it out. But it's a question of how do we continue to move forward as opposed to becoming stuck or having it end an educational or professional career. And so I think for us, it was a question of not so much how do we get over it, but how do we move forward with it in a way that can continue to support our own personal goals and things that we want to accomplish?

Anar Parikh [00:25:36] Yes, I think that's a really important clarification, because (and you pointed to this earlier) the current maybe the past couple of decades in the discipline have been around really capitalizing on human suffering. Or overemphasizing the importance of a person who goes into these spaces of extreme suffering and then emerges with brilliant insights from those spaces of suffering. But that really feeds into this trope of incentivizing, tolerating, extreme suffering or trauma in order to create something that will potentially be brilliant. And so thinking about what it means to move forward without reproducing that overemphasis on being in spaces of difficulty as a way to create knowledge.

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Chelsey Carter [25:42]

The Painful Nature of Homework.

As a queer Black feminist anthropologist studying my home, I find my personal experiences intertwined with my ethnographic fieldwork in ways that cannot be untangled. John’s love for Janice showed me the unconditional realities of love. John, a husband, father, deacon, and veteran, has every reason to be entitled, to be selfish, to be cared for as he enters the last years of his life. Yet, his gaze wasn’t inward but on Janice. Once I saw this unconditional love, and realized I had nothing to prove to be loved, I knew I had to end my relationship with my abusive partner.

In the last year, I’ve lost myself and found myself and realized that suffering, pain, and heartache have the ability to generate a reawakening both in my personal life and as a native ethnographer. The story that I thought was a love story for John and Janice, also turned out to be a much-needed lesson for me to learn my own self-worth and self-love both in my relationships but also in my relationship to this discipline and how I deploy and engage with my homework.

Rebecca Lester [00:28:14] Yes. As you were talking, I was thinking about the ways that we learn to write about our experiences, that opens up all other things about the publishing world and what kinds of ways we're pushed into talking about our experiences in certain ways for, you know, other people's monetary benefit.

Anar Parikh [00:28:33] Yes. I mean, if you want to elaborate on that, I think that would be really interesting for people to hear and think about, especially because one of the things that anthropology holds on to, especially in the last three decades, is this idea of subjectivity and reflexivity in terms of how we position ourselves in terms of our fieldwork. But I think there's a part of that, there's a certain way that we're supposed to talk about that, or a certain way that we're supposed to turn that into method that can then be theorized. So I think it'll be really insightful if both of you or either one of you wanted to talk about what that looks like in terms of publishing and what kind of work is that people purportedly want to read and the kinds of work that gets published as a result of that.

Rebecca Lester [00:29:14] Yeah, I can speak to that a little bit with the process that I've been going through with my current book. And I won't go into too much about that in particular. But my experience has been because that book does include a lot of my own personal experience, although that's certainly not about that. But that was part of the story that was necessary for talking about the other parts of the book and my experience with publishers, which have been very positive, so, you know, I have no complaints about that. But it was interesting to me that the part that was really seized upon was the personal suffering dimension of it as a way to market the book, which is fine, I mean, it's a legitimate piece of what the project is. But I did find that interesting that that was you know, they're trying to think about markets, too, and how to position books to get noticed or get picked up in classrooms and things like that. And so they're dealing with the same kind of pressures and a different register than we are. So I think they're always looking for the hook right and what's going to make the book stand out. And this is one thing that does it.

Anar Parikh [00:30:13] Beatriz, do you have anything that you'd like to add?

Beatriz Reyes-Foster [00:30:16] Yeah, I'm just reflecting.

Anar Parikh [00:30:19] Okay. Sure. No, take your time.

Beatriz Reyes-Foster [00:30:20] So, I mean, I definitely would not say that I encountered a whole lot of overt pressure to write a particular way. But I mean, obviously, the nature of the research I was doing, you know, produced portraits of suffering. But I also, I think that the difficulty here, maybe kind of thinking outside of academic publishing is that many of us as anthropologists are drawn to this kind of high stakes research. And we have this whole (maybe it's unfounded, but) we have this hope that our research is going to somehow shine a light on something that hasn't been seen, something of some dimension of the human experience that remains invisible. I'm thinking here, for instance, about like Jason De León's work, which is, you know, even reading "The Land of Open Graves" can be somewhat traumatic. I mean, I don't know anyone that's gotten through that book with a dry eye. But at the same time, what the book does is so important. And I think that many of us aspire to that. We aspire to produce something that is going to be so important that it's going to change people's minds or reach people in a different way. And I think it's hard because a lot of that research is going to be research that's going to require a lot of emotional labor. And so it becomes a catch-22 where we don't want to create a pornography of violence. And yet we also want to engage in research that does something more than just produce a description of a particular social phenomenon. And so I think that that's the balance that we're trying to find. You know, I remember when I went to graduate school and we were asked "What's at stake?" We were kind of challenged to think about what were the stakes of our research. And in some ways, we kind of were socialized to think that if our research didn't have stakes, then why bother doing it? What's the use?

Anar Parikh [00:32:13] Yeah. And I think there's something really important about what both of you are saying in terms of the reality of the current lived human experience, that there is a lot of suffering and violence and that imagining a discipline that doesn't examine or interrogate those things also feels irresponsible in terms of accounting for what it's really like to be a person in the world today. So how do we think about what modes of research or what modes of doing anthropology are sustainable? Or acknowledge that and take the responsibility of acknowledging that while also keeping in mind that there are people who are doing this work and those are whole people who also have emotional and physical and sort of mental lives that are affected by that work?

Beatriz Reyes-Foster [00:32:59] Well, I mean, I think partly or to begin with, it's our responsibility as advisors of students conducting fieldwork to have these conversations early on. And you know what I mean, the thing that hasn't come up in this conversation yet is that we have a mental health crisis among graduate students, all graduate students, not just those in anthropology. There's all this research that's coming out about the kind of mental distress and suffering that graduate students go through in their graduate school experience. And so we're already dealing with a population that is at risk and that is struggling. And so regardless of fieldwork, I think it's important for us as advisers to recognize the humanity of our students, to recognize that that many of them might not be OK, to be present as human beings for them and to ensure that, you know, maybe we're not necessarily the source for them to come in and alleviate their own suffering, but to make sure that they know what their resources are and that they know that it's okay to be a human being. And that it's okay if they're feeling any particular way, because very often the pressure that they're under is such that they don't talk about it and they don't talk about it with each other because they're afraid of being vulnerable. And so I think it's not just about preparing students for fieldwork and the potential mental suffering in the field, but also of creating an environment in departments that nurture students' mental health and that provide students with resources, support and tools to be able to take care of that part of themselves, to recognize that we're not just dealing with disembodied brains that are hyper-rational or are just absorbing information, but that we're dealing with human beings who are struggling in many different ways.

Rebecca Lester [00:34:46] I would completely agree with that. And I would just add to that a critical piece, I think as advisors and faculty members is to model for students what we're telling them about self-care and about being aware of their humanity in a broader sense. We need to be able to model that for that as well as kind of telling them these things. And that can be a struggle, certainly. And in the course of being in an academic career trajectory that, you know, it's something that's quite difficult to embody oneself.

Anar Parikh [00:35:15] Absolutely. And that kind of leads into my next question. You point to this a little bit, but you're talking a little bit about the responsibility of advisors in terms of how they mentor their graduate students or sort of model what a healthy relationship to our work looks like in terms of self care. But it also seems to me that we have a responsibility to organize for better structural conditions so that to a certain extent, having one good adviser, a handful of good advisors who recognized this and are aware of this is not enough. And so maybe advisors are one level. But how do we think about a discipline that is better at this? Institutions that are that are better at this? Given, of course, that both departments and institutions are working within a bigger socio-cultural-political environment that they can't necessarily resist at all points. But what that looks like at various levels in terms of moving from advisors to departments to institutions in how we think about making these conditions more humane for students and even for professors, because I don't think the concerns of mental illness stop at a person who's early on in their career. And maybe my personal hypothesis is that often it's recreated because I guess that a common refrain that people perceive is that this is just a part of the experience. So like I had to go through this and that's why you also have to toil through these things and creating a kind of different model or way that we think about this at various levels.

Rebecca Lester [00:36:42] Well, I think part of it is what Beatriz brought up earlier about this research that's out about the kind of mental health struggles that graduate students across disciplines are having. That I can say, at least in my institution, has certainly become part of the conversation in terms of how we think about redesigning our graduate training programs. And as you said, it's embedded within these broader structures that we can do very little about. But that doesn't mean that we can't do anything. And so to the degree that we can, rethinking how our graduate training programs unfold with these concerns in mind and also facilitating connections with different kinds of supports has been another piece. So I think it's slow, but I at least in recent years have seen some really hopeful movement, at least in my institution.

Beatriz Reyes-Foster [00:37:26] I would say the same as well. I'm in a huge institution. UCF has nearly 70,000 students and many graduate students across programs. And institutionally, there has certainly been a response in terms of training for faculty. Part of the problem is some faculty take it more seriously than others. Some faculty kind of stick to the old model, as you say, of, "well, I had to do this, so they should go through a too." I serve as graduate coordinator in my department and so this actually gives me an opportunity to set our culture as a department when it comes to graduate education. All too often, I have seen graduate programs that engage in a sort of hazing of their students, particularly the first years. Like there's a belief that, you know, that they should be struggling, they should be shocked, and they should be challenged. And certainly that they should they should be challenged, they should be held to high standards, but as departments, we can approach things in a different way. And so that is one of the things that I think we can do and that we do have a lot more control over is at the departmental level. Again, getting faculty buy-in is very important and having these conversations with our faculty members is very important. One of the things that we did in our department was we create a culture statement where we outline that, you know, if a student is admitted into a program, we make a commitment to support them through the program. Which is not to say that they're not going to be held to high standards, but we also recognize that we have to take a student-centered approach. And that is unfortunately not what many departments do, not just in anthropology, but across the fields. The way we're trained, we're not really trained to be mentors, we're not really trained to be teachers. We're trained to be researchers and we are expected to just mimic our own experiences. And that can be very toxic, depending on where we came up.

Rebecca Lester [00:39:22] You know, one thing that that we've run into at my university, Washington University in St. Louis, is the challenge of, and the benefits, of course, but in this regard, a challenge of being in a three field department, because the archaeologists and the physical anthropologists, their graduate students have their own sets of struggles, certainly, but they're different than the cultural graduate students. And, you know, neither is better or worse. They're just different. And that often when they go off to do fieldwork, they're part of a team. They're working on an adviser's project. It's a different set of issues that they're dealing with. And so sometimes in terms of getting that faculty buy-in that even sub-disciplinary difference can be a little bit of a translational problem. And trying to explain why there are these other concerns for this group of graduate students and why that requires a different kind of engagement.

Anar Parikh [00:40:10] And I think Beatriz you mentioned the culture statement and one thing that that brought up for me is also thinking about how some graduate curricula reiterate this sort of stress. And I think one thing that graduate students are coming up against recently is faculty resistance to adapting curriculum from this sort of perceived canon of what anthropology has looked like historically and sort of adapting that to what graduate student cohorts look like now. Their experiences of indigeneity and colonialism and imperialism and kind of taking that into account in terms of our training. So that's definitely been a part of my personal experience in terms of what my training was, in terms of what the discipline supposedly looks like historically, and a kind of insistence on maintaining that kind of narrative about what anthropology is rather than adapting it to think about who are the women or who are the black or indigenous or anti-colonial or decolonial scholars who've actually shaped the history of the discipline from its inception and how that carries over into all of the different ways that we think about what studying anthropology can do to people's sense of well-being.

Beatriz Reyes-Foster [00:41:18] I agree. And I think that we're actually in a really exciting moment. You brought up kind of the conversations that have been happening on Twitter, and I feel that that is opening a lot more awareness of these issues. I mean, I've been following the #hautalk debate since it started. And it's been really refreshing to see these conversations happening. You know, one of the problems is, of course, that many faculty just don't know what Twitter is or aren't on Twitter. Fortunately, you know, this is kind of carrying over into AAA panels. I think we have a long way to go. It's certainly an uphill battle. But as more of us scholars that come from the critical decolonial perspective become more and more present in anthropology departments, these conversations are happening more and more. Like I can tell you in my department, there are some of us that are making some very concerted efforts to create a curriculum that moves beyond what is considered a "canon," particularly in graduate education, to move beyond just, you know, history of anthropological theory, or towards making different kinds of anthropological histories. Because people of color and queer folks and anti-colonial anthropologists have been around and they just haven't been considered canon. And so many of us are engaging in that work. Obviously not nearly enough of us, but I am actually really optimistic about what is happening in the discipline right now on that front.

Anar Parikh [00:42:47] Great. So I wanted to thank you both again for giving some of your time to this project, and as a final question, if you wanted to elaborate on what your hope is for what comes out of the series or what its impact will be.

Rebecca Lester [00:43:02] I think for me, it's a continuation of what we've been talking about a little bit in that bringing things to the fore and continuing a conversation and a really robust way around these issues. And I think there's so much secrecy and almost shame for a lot of anthropologists about these issues and we're not going to be able to address them in any sort of disciplinary systemic way until we're able to talk about them and put language around them. And so for me, that's the most important piece of this project.

Anar Parikh [00:43:33] Beatriz, do you have anything to add?

Beatriz Reyes-Foster [00:43:34] I mean, I think I think Rebecca put it beautifully. And I think this idea of secrecy around the emotional labor and difficulty of fieldwork, I think it's really important to break it apart. And one of the things that we're also wanting to do over the course of the series is provide more information on resources and self care or even provide faculty members with tools that they need to be better at recognizing whether their student is suffering, to be able to know what kind of resources and support to provide to students that are struggling with trauma as a result of their fieldwork experiences.

Anar Parikh [00:44:21] Well, thank you so much.

Beatriz Reyes-Foster [00:44:22] And I thank you so much for doing this podcast series. I mean, I listened to the first episode and I thought it was really, really wonderful.

Rebecca Lester [00:44:30] Yeah, it's really excellent.

Beatriz Reyes-Foster [00:44:32] And excellent timing!

Anar Parikh [00:44:36] Yeah, it's really exciting. I'm not trained in anthropology of mental health, but I took a one-year mental health leap from my department and then uncannily I was assigned to T.A. an anthropology of mental health the semester after I returned, which is bizarre. But, you know, it was also a great experience in terms of being able to connect with the students on a specific level that was really personal. And so I've just really been thinking about how to parse through what parts of this are anthropology, what parts of this are being a graduate student right now, and what parts of this are just being a person in the world that we live in. And I think that the discipline in its commitment, thickly describing experiences people have in the world, also has a responsibility to think about how those same things affect anthropologists themselves. So that's just something that I'm thinking about not just in terms of mental health, but also in terms of precarity, or race and gender and sexuality and ability. And mental health is maybe a place to start, as we're shifting the discipline both in terms of what we're studying and how the concepts and theories and things that we're studying affect our own lives as anthropologists as well.

Beatriz Reyes-Foster [00:45:48] Thank you.

Rebecca Lester [00:45:49] Yes. Thank you.

[Anthropod theme music plays]

Anar Parikh [00:46:09] Thank you for listening to Anthropod, the podcast for the Society for Cultural Anthropology. My name is Anar Parikh. I'm the host and producer of this episode. I would like to extend my utmost gratitude to Rebecca Lester and Beatriz Reyes-Foster for their time and thoughtfulness on this topic. As well as to Greg Beckett and Chelsey Carter for generously sharing excerpts of their written work in audio format. You can find the full "Trauma and Resilience and Ethnographic Fieldwork" series on the Anthrodendum blog. A big thank you as well to Marios Falaris for his editorial support, and to Raphaëlle Rabanes, the executive producer of this episode for her close listening and overall support in seeing this episode to publication. I hope you stay tuned for the next installment of this series.