Only Iban speaking psychologist set to rescue lost 20 year Schizophrenia research project

A 20-year research programme carried out by an Australian academic, who died suddenly in 2007 while studying Schizophrenia among Malaysian tribal Iban people, is being rescued by a uniquely talented University of Roehampton professor.

Posted: 28 August 2015

image for news story Only Iban speaking psychologist set to rescue lost 20 year Schizophrenia research project
Professor Cecilia Essau, who is studying the indicators of Schizophrenia in the tribal Iban people.

Cecilia Essau is the only Iban-speaking academic psychologist in the world and was the first Iban woman to be awarded a PhD qualification. She is uniquely placed to read, translate and study Professor Robert Barrett’s complex field work, which included interviews and written submissions in the native language.

Between 1986 and 2006, Professor Barrett had investigated the indicators of Schizophrenia in Iban people. His research involved pursuing the most basic theoretical concepts in anthropology back to their historical origins, and applying these theories in new ways to clinical psychiatry.

He had lived with Iban families for extended periods of time in ‘long houses’ which were home to several generations and extended families. His research findings would have remained a mystery forever if a connection had not been established between Professor Essau and the University of Adelaide where he had worked.

There are just 400,000 Iban people in the world, many of whom live a lifestyle based on farming and agricultural work in Sarawak, Malaysia.

Professor Barrett’s records included first-hand accounts in the native language, blood samples from 700 people and data recorded to compile the later stages of his studies. With support from the Florey Medical Research Foundation, Professor Essau is working for the next two months at the University of Adelaide translating and studying his findings.

By decoding the mass of information, Professor Essau and Professor Anna Chur-Hansen, Head of Psychology at the University of Adelaide hope to gather evidence that some major symptoms of Schizophrenia such as those related to thinking may not be a significant indicator of the disease in all cultures, as it may not be a factor for Iban people.

This was Professor Barrett’s theory, and by studying and completing his research, the pair want to challenge established western thinking in the field. If Professor Barrett’s fieldwork and Professor Essau’s research proves certain indicators of Schizophrenia are not an appropriate indicator among Iban people the result will be a significant contribution to academic understanding of Schizophrenia.

Read the full story on the Department of Psychology homepage.

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