The differences between Brazil and the UK
The most striking difference to the system we have grown to know in the UK was the frequency and the way in which group meetings were run to deal with mental health issues. Group sessions were seen not only as a way of engaging the community in understanding and managing each other’s issues, but it was also viewed as a form of treatment in itself.
The sessions created an open space where members could discuss problems of a personal nature, but also those that affected the family or the community. Unlike similar groups taking place in the UK, members were encouraged to respond to each other with songs or poems or even works of art that they felt related to the individual’s issue – and physical comforting was commonplace between patients and with group leaders.
Dr Sandra Fortes, a psychiatrist who kindly showed us around one of the policlinics, highlighted this community spirit by telling the story of a British student in one of the Rio de Janeiro policlinics who offered a suggested course of action in the event a group member breaks down in tears.
Their suggestion: to make sure they are alright before asking them to go to the restroom to compose themselves before re-entering the space. The staff at the policlinic replied that this would result in half of the members leaving the room to console the person, and the other half remaining to reprimand the student for sending the person out in the first place!
This kind of communal sentiment came naturally to all members and was clearly a wider part of Brazil’s more collective culture. In cases such as these groups, this helped to create a very welcome and comfortable environment for members and surely went a long way to improving mental health for the individuals involved.
While in some ways this seems to be a cultural advantage over our own system of dealing with mental health issues, which primarily focuses on private counselling and fewer communal solutions, there can be instances where a group mentality can encroach on the rights of the individual.
It was reported to us that it was very common for doctors to tell family members about a diagnosis of another member of the family without telling the individual in question. It would then be up to the family members as to whether this diagnosis would ever be made apparent to the individual to whom it pertained.
While this appears to be commonplace in Brazil, similar occurrences in the UK would be seen as a tremendous breach of confidentiality and an undermining of the autonomy of the patient. Despite accepting the positive impact that community involvement can have in improving health, especially mental health, these cases still raise the major question of how much control the community should be given over the individual, and at which point individual autonomy becomes overshadowed.
The added value of internships
While on this internship programme, Professor Francisco Ortega, who instructed us while we were there, made sure to also cater to our academic interests outside of the realm of primary mental healthcare.
Francisco kindly introduced me to other academics at the Institute of Social Medicine at UERJ, including Professor Sérgio Carrara who is a pioneer in the field of gender and sexuality research in Brazil. He offered valuable insight into the general health state of queer people living in Rio de Janeiro following studies he conducted on the subject of violence and oppression.
As my dissertation focuses on the overall health and wellbeing of local LGBT communities in both London and Rio de Janeiro, this was extremely useful.
We were also invited to attend a seminar at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio), on the subject of forced migration in Latin America, with particular emphasis on those fleeing Venezuela into the North of Brazil.
Here we learnt about the use of different discourses to describe fronts or borders, the demographics of those who are forced to flee and the kind of mental health issues that refugees are bound to suffer from as a result.
This whole experience can only be described as eye-opening. So much of the theoretical knowledge that I have accumulated over the first two years of my degree in Global Health & Social Medicine began to find its place in real-world examples.
Issues such as retaining patient adherence, balancing family and individual consent, shortening the information gap between patient and doctor; these all seem much more tangible to me now. My respect for the health practitioners who have a daily responsibility over these complex challenges, has increased dramatically. I would highly recommend any student to take full advantage of this internship!