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Whitney L. Duncan, MA

PhD Candidate, Anthropology
UC San Diego

To tackle formidable problems in global health, scholars come from a wide range of disciplines. PhD candidate Whitney Duncan never guessed as an English Literature major at Columbia University that she would be conducting studies on mental health and migration in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Duncan worked as a freelance writer and editor for several years after graduating. Her experience at El Diario, a Spanish language newspaper in New York, combined with growing involvement with the migrant farmworker community in the Hudson Valley, solidified her interest in working with the Latino community.

“I wanted a deeper understanding of the issues I was drawn to journalistically, particularly migration and mental health,” says Duncan. “I felt strongly about approaching these problems through long-term research on both sides of the border.”

She decided to pursue a PhD in anthropology, and says she was fortunate to be able to do so in San Diego. “Because of the large Mexican migrant population in the area, I was able to begin volunteering and researching early on in graduate school,” she says.

Her Master’s thesis was based on work with an support group for Mexican migrant women. While completing her thesis, Whitney began volunteering at the Bayside Community Center, which offers English and Spanish courses for Mixteco (indigenous people from the region of La Mixteca) migrants, setting the stage for her research in Oaxaca. While in Oaxaca on a Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship to study the Mixtec language, Whitney was drawn to what seemed like a proliferation of psychiatric and psychological services.

“Oaxaca is known for its thriving tradition of indigenous medicine,” she says. “The new popularity of mental healthcare struck me as a historical change that was probably impacting local culture and understandings of illness in important ways. I also wondered if and how the shift was related to migration.”

She received a National Science Foundation grant to conduct fieldwork on the changing landscape of mental health in Oaxaca, and is currently writing her dissertation.

Reflecting on her research, Whitney recalls meeting patients—many of them former migrants—who traveled long distances to seek care at a psychiatric hospital outside Oaxaca City.

“Many people came from communities over eight hours away for a 30-minute appointment,” says Duncan. “Clearly, despite the sudden growth in services, access to mental healthcare remains an issue.” Whitney’s work highlights the importance of understanding the social determinants of health as well as the risks and benefits of globalizing approaches to health care.

Duncan presented findings from her research at the first-ever UC Global Health Day last November (see video).

In addition to conducting her own research, Whitney has collaborated with the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies (CCIS) at UCSD. From 2007-2008 and in 2011, she worked with the Center’s Mexican Migration Field Research Program (MMFRP) in San Miguel Tlacotepec, Oaxaca. They are currently writing their second book about the effects of migration on the community.

“UC San Diego turned out to be the best place for what I am doing - and CCIS has been a great resource,” says Duncan.