Psychology in Argentina

Vaughan Bell, Beyond Boundaries column, The Psychologist, January 2010

Argentina has more clinical psychologists per population than any other nation on earth. I’d long heard this claim in idle conversation but it turns out to be true. In a 2005 study published by the World Health Organisation on proportion of psychologists working in mental health per capita, Argentina ranks first with the rest of the top 10 consisting entirely of European countries (if you’re interested in the UK’s position, we are 31, wedged between Cuba and Japan).

Argentina is not just an anomaly for its quantity of psychologists, but for the saturation of psychology, and particularly psychoanalysis, in the culture. Psychoanalytic language is used in all levels of public discourse, from the discussion of celebrities to the weighing up of political decisions. In 2009, the right-leaning paper La Nación ran an editorial critical of the country’s successive presidents, husband and wife team Nechor and Cristina Kirchner, suggesting that their policies could be explained by an oedipal struggle rooted in unresolved conflicts in their infantile sexual development. We can only await a similar analysis of Gordon Brown in the Daily Express.

In fact, clinical psychology in the whole of Latin America is heavily psychoanalytic and there are good historical reasons for this. With Argentina to the south and the United States to the north the intellectual traffic of the 20th century favoured the influences of the two most developed countries, where Freudian and neo-Freudian thought dominated mental health. But since working on the continent, I’ve realised there are other structural reasons as well. Evidence-based scientific psychology is simply much more difficult here. It requires access to journals, which are priced out of the range of most universities, let alone smaller clinics or individual practitioners, and it requires training in experimental methods, which is often thin on the ground.

In contrast, a psychoanalytically oriented clinician can be considered fully versed in their profession through their own analysis, their work with patients, and discussions in a limited set of journals. From a psychodynamic perspective, in an environment with limited resources the desire to be considered a competent clinician is more easily satisfied by an approach that prioritises personal experience over experimental methods. While it is easy to trumpet the benefits of a scientific approach to treating patients, it is not a culturally neutral approach and there are strong social reasons for why it may be eschewed by psychologists in other countries.