Critical mental health

Jan DeFehr, associate professor, Faculty of Education

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Jan DeFehr is a University of Winnipeg alum. She completed her masters in social work from the University of Manitoba and her doctorate in behavioural and social sciences from Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

“My central teaching and research focus is critical mental health and non-pathologizing approaches to helping,” DeFehr says, speaking from her home study in Winnipeg.

“Critical mental health is the body of peer-reviewed scholarship that confronts and addresses profound ethical and scientific flaws in mainstream mental health.”

DeFehr explains that mental-health campaigns and curricula exclude scholarship in this area.

“In neoliberal, colonial, capitalist societies, it is convenient to pathologize human distress – to individualize, de-contextualize and de-politicize distress, so that the focus is on presumed individual deficit instead of on structural and systemic causes of distress. Individuals are encouraged to adjust and improve themselves while unjust systems remain unchallenged.”

She says teaching students about her research has been rewarding.

“The best thing about my work (is) being able to demystify psychiatry’s field of mental health together with my students and also helping students to understand its assumptions and practices and exploring anti-oppressive approaches to addressing human distress beyond the dominant mental-health paradigm.”

She also explores transnational dialogic practices, which value autonomy and accountability. With her colleagues Christian Israel Lizama Valladares and Cynthia Loreto Sosa Infante, DeFehr co-authored a book called Dialogic Social Inquiry: Qualitative Research Without a Methodological Map, which was published in 2021.

“Dialogic inquiry is less about following a prescribed course of action and more about allowing an inquiry process to emerge from a particular, unique, living and changing social ecology.”

What do you do in your spare time?

“I love spending time with my partner ... and two adult daughters ... I love gardening. I love walking. And I love knitting everything.”

What do you like most about Winnipeg?

“The cold and the snow, actually. I love winter.”

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

“I would want the power to stop the emerging global climate catastrophe.”

Published in Volume 77, Number 19 of The Uniter (February 16, 2023)

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