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What Fanon still teaches us about mental illness in post-colonial societies

Frantz Fanon challenged traditional views about mental illness. Shutterstock

The contemporary turn towards decolonial thinking is frequently cited in literature from the late 1990s and early 2000s. But this lens through which to understand the world has been around for a much longer time. It has an impressive lineage among Latin American, Caribbean, African and other Southern scholars. But it’s the scholar Frantz Fanon who stands head and shoulders above them all.

He is often being incisively referenced as a key thinker by many current writers. His seminal texts included Black Skin, White Masks (1952), A Dying Colonialism (1959) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961). Posthumously, Toward the African Revolution (1964) was published. All continue to be read voraciously.

But there’s often a failure to recognise that much of Fanon’s seminal thinking stemmed from his experiences working with mental illness in North Africa as a psychiatrist. It’s in these early experiences that we see many of his most revered ideas being incubated, only to become consolidated in his later texts.

Fanon was influenced by writings from Negritude, Marxism, psychoanalysis and the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. It is in his critique of colonial psychiatry in the Maghreb that Fanon’s conceptual clarity emerges with a robustness that has remained influential for over five decades.

My first encounter with Fanon’s work was more than two decades ago as a young trainee psychologist at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. I was encouraged by a group of black psychologists to engage with the emancipatory potential of Fanon’s approach to mental illness. His texts were not considered mainstream at the time. But these mentors had the foresight to appreciate the importance of his thinking in this field. Then and now.

Oppression and mental illness

Fanon recognised mental illness as a real experience that people endure. But he also offered an understanding of it as being influenced by society as well as culture. It opened up the possibilities of linking madness to the intractable contradictions of colonial and post-colonial societies. In doing so, Fanon tackled the quintessential question of the relationship between the individual and social structure – especially when the social structure itself is oppressive.

These oppressive conditions are still encountered today, and so Fanon’s ideas remain relevant.

His experiences with non-Francophone, North African patients and the barriers to understanding their world views because of an inability to engage with them in the vernacular, also introduced the importance of language as a central feature of cultural revitalisation and agency. Not only does language structure the psyche, but we make meaning through language. Being understood through our home language is crucial to mental well-being.

He directed his critique at the crude colonial interpretations of psychosomatic illnesses. These suggested that colonised peoples were primitive because they experienced mental illness through their bodily symptoms. Because of his tutelage under French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and his critique of the founding father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, Fanon didn’t simply consider the body as a site for regressed psychological functioning. Instead, he suggested that the body plays a pivotal role in the expression and structuring of the mind, and helps to constitute us as human beings.

Fanon ultimately viewed institutionalised care as a mode of disciplinary power in the regulation of people. He saw it as a proxy mechanism of control directed at those who displayed an inability to manage the double-bind nature of oppressive colonial contexts.

Limitations of psychology and psychiatry

There are many taken-for-granted critiques that undergraduate students in psychology and psychiatry are exposed to today. These include a recognition of cultural bias in psychological assessments and the limitations of pharmaceuticals in treating mental health conditions. They also include the importance of not reducing mental health conditions to a set of psychological origins without considering the impact of the environment or context.

These were in fact foremost in Fanon’s critique. And they continue to propel psychologists and psychiatrists of my generation to circumvent the pitfalls of earlier generations.

Of course, on the matter of violence, Fanon’s experiences with patients who had been subjected to state repression, brutality and torture revealed the limitations of psychology and psychiatry in addressing problems in the social structure of society.

It also prompted a consideration of revolutionary violence as a way of “disintoxifying” the colonised minds of the oppressed. But his ideas on violence have probably been most misinterpreted, often conspicuously by those who have characterised him as an apostle of violence.

Fanon’s experience with violence and counter-violence in fact led him to be deeply ambivalent about it. He recognised that the distinction between perpetrator and victim becomes blurred. Also, the residual brutality of violence and counter-violence remains a dominant feature in post-colonial societies.

That is a feature that is perhaps all too common today. It requires a much more fine grained analysis, as we attempt to understand and address the scourge of violence that pervades all spheres of contemporary living.

This is an edited version of the foreword to Nigel C. Gibson and Roberto Beneduce’s book Frantz Fanon, Psychiatry and Politics (Wits University Press).

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