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20 March 2014updated 03 Aug 2021 2:16pm

Talking cure: Vikram Patel on The Life Scientific

Jim Al-Khalili spoke to the leading psychiatrist about treating depression in Zimbabwe, yet had to shoehorn in some clunky biographical details.

By Antonia Quirke

The Life Scientific
Radio 4

In The Life Scientific (Tuesdays, 9am), presenter Jim Al-Khalili talked to the pioneering psychiatrist Vikram Patel about the kinds of depression and psychosis suffered in developing countries compared to those in the west. Patel contends that they are the same. He estimates that 10 per cent of the global population – whether they live in a tin hut or a waterfront condo – will suffer from depression at some point and might benefit from the talking cure or medical intervention.

Of the 150,000 psychiatrists potentially needed in India (population 1.2 billion), only 4,000 are currently employed there. When Patel went to Zimbabwe, there were nine psychiatrists for ten million people. He trained local lay counsellors, encouraging them to work alongside traditional faith healers, who recognised depression as a form of distress called “thinking too much”. Was Patel just pushing the medicalisation of an already pragmatically accepted social condition? It didn’t sound like it. He said the same thing in a hundred different ways: “No matter where you are, depression responds to the same treatment.”

Given the potency of the subject, it was perhaps no surprise that each inquiry from Al-Khalili was overstuffed. It’s a Radio 4 idiom – the information-packed phrase posing as a question. Kirsty Young has to do it all the time on Desert Island Discs, sometimes condensing her guest’s crises in not one but several marriages into the few seconds leading up to asking about the fourth choice of song, while trying to sound not remotely engulfed by the biographical maelstrom.

At least she seems to do it when her subject is in the same room. When Al-Khalili abruptly announced, “Then you came over to study in Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, Vikram Patel, after which you spent several years in London training in psychiatry, but in the summer of 1993, you boarded a flight from Heathrow bound for Harare in Zimbabwe; what drew you there?” it sounded like the whole thing had been plopped-in later – by the producer, perhaps even pretending to be Jim in the edit. It was one of a few jagged moments that sent an ex­ceptional conversation into the realms of the abstract.

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