Iban speaking psychologist to rescue lost 20 year Schizophrenia research project

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

Posted: 27 August 2015

image for news story Iban speaking psychologist to rescue lost 20 year Schizophrenia research project
Indicators of Schizophrenia among the Iban people, seen here at a traditional cultural event, are being researched by Professor Cecilia Essau, inset.

Roehampton’s Cecilia Essau is the only Iban-speaking academic psychologist in the world able to read, understand and study much of 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. This was an ambitious new NHMRC-funded project which attempted to marry the disciplines of social anthropology, psychiatry and genetics, to try to understand if and how Schizophrenia can be inherited. 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 were it not for the fact that Professor Essau was invited to give a seminar on child psychopathology at the University of Adelaide last September as the Norman Munn Distinguished Visiting Professor with Flinders University School of Psychology. Explaining her personal history and language fluency led to the international connection – Professor Barrett had previously worked at Adelaide.

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 Essau was the first Iban woman ever to hold a PhD.

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. He had already published a number of essays on the ethnopsychology, psychiatric and genetic condition of the Iban people giving some indication of the route of his studies.

With support from the Florey Medical Research Foundation, Professor Essau is working for the next two months with Professor Barrett’s former colleagues at the University of Adelaide translating and studying his findings, which currently stretch to 50 boxes of records in Special Collections section of the Barr Smith Library, University of Adelaide.

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, such as delusions of control and thought broadcast, insertion or withdrawal, may not be a significant indicator of Schizophrenia in all cultures, as it may not be a factor for Iban people.

This was Professor Barrett’s theory, but by studying and completing his research, the pair want to challenge established western thinking in the field, as published in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Organisation.

The Manual, the most prominent collection of research in the field of mental disorders, is relied on by trainee and practising doctors, consultants and scholars around the world. It specifically lists five factors as indicators of Schizophrenia:


  • Delusion
  • Hallucinations
  • Dsorganised speech 
  • Grossly disorganised or catatonic behaviour
  • Negative symptoms such as diminished emotional expression 


Professor Essau said there was a substantial difference in the Iban concept of thinking to that of Western English-speaking cultures. In the Western context, thinking is a mental activity that takes place in the brain. Among the Iban, thinking comes from the heart-liver region and is closely tied with emotion, desire and will. 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.

Professor Essau said: “This is a hugely exciting project to work on, not least because Professor Barrett’s fieldwork was carried out in towns near where my own family have lived, but also because it reaches right to the heart of the nature or nurture debate.

“Having the opportunity to recover the work of such an eminent scholar, and interpreting it into English and understanding his findings is a real contribution to science, and I’m humbled to be able to take part. It would have been incredibly sad to think so much work and study over a lifetime would have been lost, and with it a greater understanding of how we diagnose and treat Schizophrenia.”

Depending on the progress of the project, Professor Essau may apply for further funding to continue the project at the Department of Psychology in Roehampton in the longer term.

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