2013 Fieldwork Reports

Aiden Seale-Feldman (Rural Nepal)

Mass Conversion Disorder in Nepal

Aidan Seale-Feldman, M.A.

I am a doctoral student in the department of Anthropology at UCLA, where I study psychological and medical anthropology under the guidance of Professors Jason Throop and Douglas Hollan. I received my M.A. in Anthropology from UCLA in 2012, and my B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College in 2009. My work draws on my long standing interest in ethnographic research and writing, and theoretical engagement with anthropological research on phenomenology, subjectivity, intersubjectivity, experience, and the imagination. My dissertation research examines the phenomenon of “mass conversion disorder” also known as chhopne rog, among adolescent schoolchildren in rural Nepal, exploring both the experiential and discursive dimensions of an illness whose causes are widely debated. With support from the FPR–CBDMH fieldwork fellowship this past summer, I was able to make important connections with psychosocial counselors at the Center for Victims of Torture (CVICT–Nepal), who not only helped me to establish a field site in Nepal, but have shared their knowledge and experience with the issue of mass conversion disorder in Nepal. The FPR-CBDMH training program has also made it possible to connect with P.I. Dr. Laurence Kirmayer at McGill University, who has provided generous insight into my dissertation research topic at this critical point in my graduate training.

My dissertation research examines the increasing cases of “mass hysteria,” also known as chhopne rog, which have been reported among adolescents in government schools throughout Nepal. Investigating the phenomenon of mass chhopne rog, which affects mainly female adolescents in rural Nepal, this study examines the relationship between new forces of social change which have taken shape after the decade-long violence of the “People’s War,” and the psychological dimensions of people’s lives. Why are adolescent girls disproportionally afflicted by chhopne rog and how might this be connected to gendered relations of power and subordination? What is the experience of chhopne rog for those who are afflicted by the illness, and how does it fit into the context of their everyday lives? In what ways might episodes, experiences, and diagnoses of chhopne rog be connected to trauma experienced during the People’s War, new family formations caused by transnational migration, or notions of modernity and development? Through a phenomenological, person-centered approach to ethnographic research, my research explores the ways in which subjectivity, an individual’s intimate, affective, emotional life– thoughts, desires, hopes, fears or dreams– takes form in relation to particular historical, political, economic, and sociocultural conditions.

With support from the FPR-CBDMH fieldwork fellowship, this past summer I travelled to Nepal where I conducted preliminary fieldwork on mass conversion disorder and chhopne rog for two months. While in Nepal, I spent time at the Center for Victims of Torture (CVICT-Nepal) in Kathmandu, and travelled to a number of villages both in Central and Mid-Western Nepal where students and young adults had suffered from chhopne rog. At CVICT I worked closely with Mr. Phanindra Adhikari, Mr. Binod Poudel, and Dr. Rubby Das, who generously took the time to teach me about their work and mental health initiatives in Nepal. In Sindhupalchowk VDC, with the help of my amazing research assistant, Ms. Sumita Rawal, I conducted 15 structured and semi-structured interviews with health post workers, local healers, school administrators, students and their families on the topic of chhopne rog, experiences of the illness, causes and treatment. I also travelled to Dang district, where I worked closely with Mrs. Yashoda Oli, a psychosocial counselor with CVICT and important community member in the city of Gorahi. With Mrs. Oli’s guidance I was able to conduct interviews with school administrators, students, parents, and local healers in secondary schools in VDCs across the district of Dang, an opportunity which enabled me to gather interesting comparative data.

Thanks to the generous support of the FPR-CBDMH training fellowship, I have been able to make invaluable connections with psychosocial counselors and doctors in Nepal, and have been able to establish a fieldsite in Nepal where I will conduct my dissertation research over the course of 12 months in 2014-2015. I am so grateful for this amazing opportunity, which has helped me immensely at this critical point in my graduate training. Additionally, while my training in anthropology has led me to practice my skills as an ethnographer, as a CBDMH trainee I have been introduced to exciting possibilities for interdisciplinary collaboration, particularly between ethnography and neuroscience. As a graduate student in anthropology, I welcome the chance to contribute to discussions both within and outside of my discipline with researchers interested in similar issues related to mental health and the alleviation of suffering. I thank the FPR-CBDMH program for introducing me to these exciting possibilities for collaboration, a perspective that has influenced my own attitude towards research in new and meaningful ways.