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Centre for Investigating Contemporary Social Ills

CICSI is a new research initiative of academics and practitioners. It's cross-institutional and independent. Taking inspiration from the early Frankfurt School, its purpose is to study problems with society by conceptualising them in terms of social ills or pathologies; and to provide conceptual tools and a broader evidence base with which to address them. Our approach is interdisciplinary and ecumenical. It is guided by individuals and social movements who are struggling to end oppression, needless suffering, and injustice. 

 

We seek to explore a variety of concerns with and in society through the lens of asking 'what is ill here?': from the crises of (representational) democracy to rising inequality, from the climate emergency to other human-made ecological disasters, from the way we organise education or health care to the rising incarceration rates. Reflecting critically about the functions of society and what sustains social life in the long-run, we understand social pathologies as those social conditions that systematically harm individuals. Part of such conditions are the mechanisms which stand in the way of the social change that would address the social ills of our times, obscuring their enabling and causal conditions.

 

The starting focus of the Centre is on mental distress and its social context. Considering the socio-political environment and inner life of individuals to be deeply entangled, we can think of individual suffering as a kind of seismograph of the tremors occurring in society. Although we start with the distress individuals are suffering, we look for its conditions beyond the individual level. Indeed, we also go beyond researching social determinants of individual health and well-being by investigating the nature of our societies that give rise to such determinants.  

Sick Normality?

It is a striking, if not already notorious fact of our time that it is now the statistical norm to be diagnosed with at least one “mental disorder” in one’s lifetime. From being a rare occurrence affecting about 1% of the population, there has been an exponential rise of diagnosis since 1980. In 2003, the estimated lifetime prevalence stood already at nearly half of the adult population in the USA. A 2020 longitudinal study in New Zealand found that, by the time people had reached the age of forty-five, 86% met the criteria for at least one “mental disorder”, and, in most cases, more than one.

Being diagnosed as sick has become normality.

 

“Mental disorder” has moved to being seen as a major health burden. The WHO in 2017 considered “depression” as the single largest contributor to global disability, with over 300 million affected; and nearly the same number again suffering from a range of “anxiety disorders”. These trends have been accompanied by a prescription epidemic. In industrialised countries, we reached the point where about one in five of the adult population has been given a psychiatric drug prescription within the last year. Prescription levels are increasing, and the length of prescriptions is increasing, with ever-more groups of population included.

 

At the same time, there is mounting evidence that despite huge sums invested in psychiatric research, the current diagnostic paradigm in psychiatry remains on shaky foundation. The formation and development process of its diagnostic categories has been criticised as unscientific, influenced by economic interests of the pharma industry, and not sufficiently mindful of the legacies of patriarchy and colonialism.

 

Moreover, there is accumulating evidence that clinical outcomes, even on their own terms, have either flatlined or become worse. Pharmaceutical interventions for various “disorders” are often no more effective than placebos, while coming with significant side effects, which, in turn, negatively impact physical and mental health. The current mental health system involves deprivation of liberty and coercion, and more and more people feel uncomfortable about the retraumatising of people that occurs through it. 

Changing Perspective

When it has become so normal to be sick during one’s lifetime, we should ask whether the dominant psychiatric conception of pathology is itself pathological and thus misrepresenting sickness. There are certain social conditions that may make any one of us sick. When sickness is so wide-spread, perhaps, then, it is what we see as “social normality” that is sick or even mad. Why and how does the society’s normal functioning require of us reactions and responses that its own medical establishment considers “pathological”? What is the relationship between this state of affairs and the (neoliberal) socio-political structures of Western societies?  

The work of the Centre for Investigating Contemporary Social Ills is about uncovering what socio-political and psychological processes sustain the psychiatric ‘diagnosis and drug’ approach, despite its well-documented problems. We aim to shift our collective attention to the social ills resulting in mental distress. We are looking for responses to distress that don’t pathologise the individual but effect change on the social level and in a way that is specific to the context in question. We believe this is an approach that would genuinely benefit individuals and release pressure on our stretched health and care systems.  

 

Interested to find out more about the work of the Centre for Investigating Contemporary Social Ills or want to contribute to its work? Please contact us using the contact function of this website.  

People

CICSI is a network of academics, independent scholars, and practitioners in various disciplines, working on the issues mentioned above. As our work progresses, we will invite and affiliate members with expertise in a range of social concerns.

Advisory Board

Dr Jacqui Dillon

Activist and Trainer

Hearing Voices Network

Expert-by-experience; author; activist; speaker and trainer; and former National chair of the Hearing Voices Network in England. Honorary Lecturer in Clinical Psychology at the UEL. Editor of several books, including Demedicalising Misery and Models of Madness.

Dr Martin Zinkler

Klinikum Bremen-Ost, Germany

& Subcommittee on Torture

Psychiatrist and psychotherapist; heads a mental health service in Bremen, Germany. Coeditor-in-chief of "Recht & Psychiatrie", the journal of law and psychiatry for the German speaking countries. He publishes mainly on human rights in mental health care. Member of the OHCHR's Subcommittee on Torture.

Dr Benoit Eyroud

Sociologist and anthropologist, expert on welfare and civic law as well as participatory action research. Scientific lead of a program of citizen research on the exercise of the human rights of people made vulnerable by old age, illness, disability.

Our Partners

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