Last weekend marked the commencement of London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s first cohort of Global Mental Health MSc graduates. Amidst our “woops” and hollering, 13 of the 18 graduates accepted their diplomas on stage at the Graduate Institute of Education Saturday afternoon.
Sitting among rows of black robes and mortarboards, I was reminded of my undergraduate commencement five years ago, where news correspondent Christiane Amanpour urged graduates to “take your passport and go”:
There is so much opportunity out in the developing part of the world … people are waiting for you. They’re waiting for an army of energetic idealists like you to help build small businesses, to run schools, to teach class … It will change your lives, and it will set you on the road to your future.
I remembered flinching at her words. As an anthropology student, I’d spent four years honing my critical radar, dissecting words like these to extract the imperialist nugget within. And on the day of commencement, our speaker had mobilized them to set flight to an entire graduating class.
Go forth unto the underdeveloped lands of the world! Bestow upon them your unique and valuable gifts! Conquer poverty, and you too shall be rewarded!
Now, graduating from the historical birthplace of colonial medicine, I expected to feel a similar sense of discomfort. The “road to your future” that I’ve taken is very much the Amanpourian ideal. And the field of global mental health has proven rich terrain for the imperialism-miners among us.
Yet, looking around at the other graduates from our course, I felt reassured. I recalled heated Friday-night discussions on cross-cultural measurement and the dangers of exporting failed models of service delivery. I remembered the surprise of one of my classmates after attending the debate “Global Mental Health is Westernised Medicalisation of Distress”. She said she hadn’t been aware of these critiques before joining the course. But over our year together, we questioned, we contested, we contemplated, and none of us came out quite the same.
A few classmates have returned to clinical work and policy in the UK with a renewed appreciation for social determinants and the varied needs of our cosmopolitan population. Others have gone into research, aware of the unique methodological challenges that mental health poses. A relatively small number continue to work directly in “the developing part of the world”, but those who do have been provided with some practical tools and skill sets to help them along the way.
I’ve stayed on at LSHTM, now as a staff member instead of a student. I won’t be flying back to Mexico or France this week, or even commuting to a different campus. Nevertheless, sitting in the ceremony, with our Course Director Alex Cohen watching over us from the graduation platform wearing his purple UCLA sash— insignia from his own training as a shrewd anthropologist with a critical approach to mental health—I felt something had changed.
Five years ago, I didn’t believe that my class could be trusted with the advice to “take your passport and go”. Today, I have faith in my fellow graduates to approach their work with the same humility, respect and reflection that they brought to our training in global mental health, and which this course actively encouraged. The Global Mental Health MSc did not aspire to create an “army of energetic idealists”. Rather, we are a family of energetic thinkers. And I am proud to be a part of it.