Wednesday, April 22, 2009

WEEK 12: Visits While at the UNAM

After returning from our travels during Semana Santa, we once again packed our bags to leave for a week-long seminar in Mexico City. We were hosted by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) – a prestigious Mexican university that holds the largest social work program in Latin America. It was almost shocking to be on a university campus again because we hadn’t been in that kind of environment for so long! In addition to learning about the university and social work program, we were able to visit various sites around Mexico City.

One highlight of our seminar in Mexico City this week was our visit to the National Institute of Neurology and Neurosurgery. During our visit we were able to connect with the social work department at the institute, which helps UNAM social work students complete thesis projects at undergraduate and graduate levels as well as social work internships. During our visit, we learned how health problems are often linked to social issues.

Social Work students at the National Institute of Neurology and Neurosurgery in Mexico City.

The institute, created in 1964, has remained a leading research and training center in neurological science for 4 decades. The institute is dedicated to research, teaching, diagnosis, and treatment. They care for patients with chronic degenerative neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. They also care for neuropsychiatric diseases such as depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, which constitute a serious public health problem. Brian tumors and other neurosurgical entities are also a growing area of treatment. In addition, the institute is connected with university students from Mexico and abroad for masters and doctoral programs in medicine.

The task of the department of social work at the institute includes assessing the patients’ socio-economic condition to be able to set up a payment schedule. It offers administrative guidance in conjunction with nursing and medical staff to promote patient recovery, well being, and full integration into his or her family unit. When needed, social workers make home visits. When a patient is admitted to the hospital, the social worker is in charge of explaining to the patient and the family the internal guidelines and procedures of the institute.

As one of the social workers explained to us, denial of mental illness is a problem in Mexican culture. Mental illness just isn’t very well recognized, and people with mental illness are viewed as crazy. Therefore, people put a lot of blame on themselves for their illness. The social worker explained that she often helps patients deal with negative feedback from society. She tells them that they’re not crazy, and that their illness is simply an illness like any other.

Another highlight of the week was the opportunity to visit the house where Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived. The house is now a museum of Frida’s brilliant artwork. I could have spent an hour looking at each painting because they are all so filled with so much symbolism about her life. I really admire creative forms of self-expression, and it was beautiful to learn about deepest feelings of this female Mexican artist in this way. As we have spent the semester meeting people from all experiences and walks of life, I felt as though I got to meet Frida in some way.
Frida and Diego lived in this house 1929-1954

To finish the week, we took a day to practice the Mexican cultural value of “being” rather than “doing”. In the colonia of Xochimilco, we spent the afternoon riding in a colorful boat along a canal, and were even serenaded by a group of mariachi musicians! It was a great end to a wonderful week in Mexico City.

One of the boats along the canal in Xochimilco

--By Rachel Schwabe-Fry


  1. Once again, all of these postings share so vividly the learning experiences you are having -- they give us in Minnesota a taste of the wonder and inspiration for social work you are finding in Mexico. There is so much new here for me -- I did not know about the National Institute of Neurology and Neurosurgery and the social workers there, and earlier postings explaining the process of social work education and describing the visit from UNAM students (with their cheer!) were informative and delightful to read and view the photos. I can't wait to print out the whole set -- they will serve for orientation of future students as well as help support connections between the family and groups course I will be teaching here next spring with the students and Prof. Schock in Cuernavaca next year. I also appreciated reflections on Frida y Diego, whose art I cherish. Thanks again for taking the time to write so well!

  2. Rachel,

    I was really intrigued by your visit to the National Institute of Neurology and Neurosurgery. As a Psychology major and Biology minor I am very interested in how other cultures view medical illness, specifically mental illness. I researched a little bit about culture and mental illness and would like to share some of that with you. Enjoy!

    In most cultures, stigmatization is especially harmful because the stigma is often attached to the entire family as well as to the mentally ill individual. The result is often resentment, fear, and maltreatment of the mentally ill.

    For example, the Vietnamese believe in karma: someone afflicted by mental illness is either being punished for a wrongdoing in a previous life or by an angry ancestor who has returned to possess him or her. To avoid disgrace, the family will hide their mentally ill family member from the public. It is said that Vietnamese psychiatrists are ridiculed rather than respected and are forced to work shorter hours than other doctors for fear that they, too, might become possessed by whatever has contaminated or invaded their patients.

    However, different cultures have different concepts of what constitutes a mental illness. Take suicide, for example. In Japan, suicide is, in most cases, not considered problematic, rather it can be an honorable act committed to save face or for a noble cause. Similarly, while the Koran prohibits suicide, "suicide bombers" are not generally considered "suicides" by their zealous supporters – they are martyrs for their cause. But in North America, someone who attempts suicide will likely be diagnosed with some form of psychological problem.

    -Justin Crosbie, CIEE Thailand

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  4. I have heard that that University is one of the oldest of Latin America. I would like to visit it in order to know how are Universities in that zone of the world.