Why do we engage outside of academia and are we doing it well?

Reflections on the London SciComm Symposium

The Cultural Contexts of Health project being developed by the University of Exeter WHO Collaborating Centre on Culture and Health in collaboration with WHO Europe aims to engage with a broad audience in order to explore how experiences of illness and medical knowledge are shaped by cultural practices and beliefs, both now and in the past.  It is therefore important to reflect on what the foundations of meaningful engagement are and how this can benefit those we engage with as well as academics in the Centre.

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How Good Stories Can Help us Make Better Decisions on Health

Country singers value a good story. While the pain and joy of love is a common theme, domestic abuse, the waste of war, prison and poverty also figure. Ask Johnny Cash.  The man in black was clear.  He said that until ‘we make a few things right, you’ll never see me wear a coat of white’.

The power of stories in driving policy action was highlighted in a recent Radio 4 programme ‘A Point of View’, an interest echoed in the work of the WHO Collaborating Centre on the Cultural Contexts of Health here at Exeter University. The programme recounted how ‘charismatic’ stories help achieve change, and gave the smoking ban in public places in England as an example. It reckoned that such stories connect ideas into a narrative powerful enough to realise such change. In contrast, the disparate data on health inequalities and lack of charismatic stories meant that a coherent narrative had failed to emerge.  This, it was argued, had undermined efforts to deliver key changes to improve health and reduce health inequalities. Continue reading

Death by Loneliness: Laboratory mice, the U-shaped curve, and Antoine Roquentin

Who gets lonely?

As an academic psychologist, I find working with older adults illuminating for all sorts of reasons. It’s particularly interesting to learn what they won’t discuss. Loneliness seems to be a topic that people resist discussing. When asked about personal loneliness, the research participants that I interview often say evasive things, like “I know someone who is lonely, but I don’t feel lonely myself”. Most agree that it is a phenomenon, however, that is practically synonymous with old age. Most are surprised when I tell them about the many studies that find a second peak of loneliness – in young adulthood – which may even surpass old-age loneliness in severity. Yet more surprising to them is the apparent inseparability of loneliness and culture – different cultures have different social norms concerning relationships, expected social support, and as a result, loneliness. Continue reading

Why health services need to adapt to large-scale migration

Migration is central to the lives of a sizeable portion of today’s global population. In 2015, an estimated 244 million people were international migrants, whilst a further 740 million were estimated to migrate within their own country. Many millions more people, whilst not themselves moving, are directly affected by migration, both as social networks extend across national borders, and as labour markets and service provision become increasingly entangled within the wider global political economy. Continue reading

Why Do Healers Appeal to Patients?

Why do healers of different kinds attract people in so many places all over the world?

In some sites, both healers and self-treatment are popular because biomedical therapeutic options are unavailable or difficult to access. However, even in countries with well-developed healthcare infrastructures, so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) remains popular and non-biomedical practitioners, including ‘traditional’ healers, are widely consulted. Continue reading

Changing diets from a cultural perspective

Dietary choices, cooking styles and eating habits are all influenced by a number of factors. In part, they are the product of personal preferences, but they are also determined by the availability and cost of food, by the ways in which food and nutritional advice are promoted and distributed, and by cultural values – those attitudes, beliefs and customs that shape our behaviour and help to dictate our choices. Continue reading

Mental Health and the Refugee Crisis

Refugee woman goes on the road with her suitcase

The current crisis in Syria has very explicitly brought the plight of refugees to global attention. Since 2011 over half of the population have been displaced, while around 8 million people have been internally displaced, a further 4 million registered refugees have left Syria and fled to neighbouring countries and beyond (UNHCR, 2015). One of the many challenges generated by this crisis is how host countries of refugee populations can respond to the health needs, and particularly mental health, of those who have fled the trauma and violence of events in Syria. Continue reading

Eating Identity: Nourishment and the Cultural Contexts of Food

We eat for nourishment, but food is about much more than nutrition. What we eat is meaningful, and food is an especially intimate area of daily life, tightly linked to our conceptions of self. Think about your own food preferences: a nostalgic meal from your childhood, a treat you indulge yourself with on special occasions, a religious sanction against certain foods. In these ways, food is not only at the heart of our material subsistence, it is at the core of our identity as well, deeply associated with family, hearth, home, and community. We are what we eat, conceptually as well as biologically. Continue reading