Ethnography and mental health

This post discusses mental health.

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Melbourne, December 2015:

I remember waiting at the airport to leave for my very first anthropology conference. I remember crying because I missed my pets, before I had even boarded the plane. After getting out of the airport, I found my way to the apartment where I was staying; a bus, a tram, then a walk. I had the walking directions printed out already. I’d done a Google Maps street view tour before I left, turning down every street and memorising the landmarks in my mind.

I unpacked. I ventured out to find some dinner. I took my dinner back to the apartment. I cried some more. I didn’t speak to anyone until the next day.

I wouldn’t stop talking about my dog to all of the fellow postgraduate students I met at the workshops on the first day. Miraculously we’re all still friends now.

I had a good time.

I hugged the cat tightly when I got back home, and it felt like she was hugging me too.

Fieldwork, 2016: 

I remember how at first, I couldn’t talk to anyone. I drove around, I sat in public parks alone, I people-watched in coffee shops. I felt immobilised, knowing I had no inherent right to the knowledge I was looking for. I told myself ‘I should be better at this, I used to live here’.

I remember contacting people I already knew; old neighbours, former employers, family friends. It made me feel brave.

I remember struggling to reconcile fieldwork as ‘productivity’. I wasn’t creating something tangible, I was sitting around, talking to people. That didn’t seem right.

I remember having trouble convincing myself to stay, and then criticising myself for going home. It was only half an hour away, after all. Was this ethnographic enough?

I remember feeling ‘wrong’. If I was an anthropologist, uncertainty should be normal, right? If I was going to do this for a career, I should get used to change and learn to adapt, right?

I remember coming home for a weekend. I couldn’t find the cat. I would never find her again. When I found out what happened, a horrific, guttural wail left my mouth and wouldn’t stop. Sometimes I hear that sound in television shows, or in movies, and I leave the room immediately. A cavity opened up in my chest, and the emptiness wouldn’t leave. I spent a week lying on the couch. I can’t remember eating anything, except for a tray of lentil lasagne a kind friend made for me. Lasagna in tiny portions, for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

There was no choice but to go on, and I was driven by desire for productivity. I was always doing something. It kept me busy, but most importantly, it felt right.

Eventually, I stopped driving everywhere. I talked to a lot of people. I talked to people I didn’t know, I approached strangers on the street, I chatted, and I listened. I met people I would come to consider close friends, and I felt immensely privileged as they invited me into their lives.

Sitting in parks turned out to form the basis of an invaluable case study on pathways, infrastructure and mapping. It’s now chapter four in my thesis. I learned to turn unhelpful thoughts into useful analysis. They were ‘self-reflection’ now. I adjusted to feeling comfortable with being uncomfortable. I felt bolder, having gone beyond the ethnographic veil and emerged having completed this significant phase. I’d done it! I did fieldwork! I was a real anthropologist.

I had a great time.

England, July 2016:

I went overseas for the first time, I went alone. There was a car ride, two long-haul flights, a train, a taxi, then a walk. I picked up a chest infection, somewhere between Brisbane, Dubai, and Newcastle. I presented my conference paper, feeling like death.

I told myself that my paper wasn’t aligned with the panel. This wasn’t true, but I let myself believe it and I let myself believe that I was on the outer, unable to talk to the other presenters. Except the Australians. I’d travelled halfway around the world, only to become friends with an Australian.

I told myself I couldn’t connect because I was doing research ‘at home’ – I hadn’t gone to a far off place, so I was unfashionable and parochial.

I told myself that this could be the start of an idea, and I turned the unhelpful thoughts into useful analysis. Maybe it could be a journal article, or even a conference paper?

I went hiking in an abandoned limestone quarry, still feeling like death, but now braver than ever.

Home, August 2017:

A series of unfortunate events unrelated to my studies spiralled out of control, and seeped into every other area of my life. Constant panic attacks, overwhelming dread, crying myself to sleep, an inability to focus, general malaise, anhedonia. I took on more than I could handle, and I was floundering. Where did May go? What happened in August? I can’t remember, but in September there were signs that the fog might begin to lift.

I found a GP, she was kind. She said I was high functioning, which gave me a misguided sense of pride. I heard the words ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’, and something suddenly made sense. I followed through with her suggestions on management and recovery.

An idea developed in the cavity of my chest. It got bigger and bigger and didn’t leave: maybe I could get another cat?

Adelaide, December 2017:

I went to South Australia for the first time to go to another conference, I went alone. I didn’t know how to get to my apartment beforehand; I told myself ‘fuck it, I’ll just get an Uber’. I approached more senior academics after I’d had a few wines, and had some great conversations. I turned my idea on ethnography at home into a paper, and presented it with a sense of pride I hadn’t felt before. I asked questions and contributed to discussions. I caught up with people I only see once a year. I was invited to participate in a working group discussing a key disciplinary issue that had recently emerged.

I had the best time.

I hugged the kitten tightly when I got home.


While identifying and managing mental health issues is not a linear process, doing ethnography had a surprisingly profound and positive personal effect. I had trouble adjusting to change, and by doing fieldwork I felt more capable and better able to adapt to new situations. I became brave and I began to learn to trust myself. This was a hard post to write, but it’s an idea that has been rolling around in my head for a while now. Thanks for reading through it all.

If you are experiencing mental health issues, visit Beyond Blue, contact your GP, or call the 24/7 Lifeline helpline on 13 11 14.  

Featured image via Deathnography.

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