The Psychic Life of the Poor

13th March 2018

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The plight of the poor in the developed and developing world and the mental health issues associated with poverty are the focus of ground-breaking new research by Wadham’s Ankhi Mukherjee.

Professor of English and World Literatures and Tutorial Fellow at Wadham College at the University of Oxford, Ankhi Mukherjee discusses her current research project, 'Unseen City: The Psychic Life of the Poor in Mumbai, London, and New York', in this short film.

Play Ankhi Mukherjee.

In the course of her research, Ankhi has investigated the ‘free clinic’ movement, initiated by Sigmund Freud in 1918 to dispense free or low-fee psychoanalysis, which led to the creation of mental health co-operatives throughout the world. “By gaining an understanding of the psychic life of the poor we can see that for those in extreme poverty there is more than suffering and abjection – there is also resilience, hopefulness, and upward mobility,” she said.

By tracing the international history of the free clinic movement, with case studies from Indian cities, New York, and London, Ankhi examines the way that literature and culture can shed light on how for some, the possibility for full and able-bodied citizenship is denied by the very state which is meant to provide and protect it.

Her initial findings show the plight of the poor, particularly in terms of mental health, can be as appalling in developed countries as in developing countries. The connection between mental health, disability and poverty is the same whether it be in New York, London or Calcutta. “People are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty simply because of the mental illness that comes with the most devastating brutalising forms of deprivation. This leads to a loss of function, mental and physical,” she said. The slum and migrant poor, Ankhi observes, are always peripheral to the existence of the city, the surplus population utterly deprived of social goods and (mental) health services despite providing the labour critical to the functioning of the service sector in advanced and growing economies.

A notable finding of this research is the vital role of social workers, whom Ankhi terms the ‘guerrilla’ volunteers. From clinical psychologists to human rights activists, they work tirelessly to help treat and raise awareness of the issues affecting the poor in our societies. These exemplars show how the middleclass author, scholar, or literary critic can unlearn their privilege (as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak says) to join the war against poverty.

Ankhi will focus her forthcoming book on the relevance of psychoanalysis for addressing the ailments of the poor, highlighting that the poor need not just food, shelter and clothing, but resources for mental health. “We need to look at the poor not as an anonymous collective but as individuals with complex psychic lives,” she adds, questioning also the damning social prejudice that the socially dispossessed may not have intellectual or emotional resources to sustain analytic work.

Through this interdisciplinary work in the medical humanities Ankhi is hopeful for change. "By raising awareness for universal mental health care we can restore the humanity of populations which have been devastated by the violence of colonial, neocolonial, and neoliberal regimes. We will become a more just and equitable society when we give the poor the right to have minds and dreams."