Akhil Mehra, MD, PhD

Phone: 415-476-6776
Fax: 415-476-6715


B.A., History of Science, Medicine & Technology, Johns Hopkins University
M.Phil., History of Medicine, Cambridge University; M.D., University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine; Residency in Psychiatry, Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute, University of California, San Francisco
Ph.D., History of Health Sciences, University of California, San Francisco

Select Publications  Research Interest

•         History of clinical psychiatry and psychoanalysis
•         History of the “environment” and mental health
•         History of pain and addiction
•         History of medicine in the context of empire; psychiatry and global health.
•         Philosophy and ethics of psychiatry


The heart of my research involves doing “translational” history of medicine.  This involves investigating the history of views and assumptions about human nature that underlie current psychiatric clinical practice. The purpose of this work is to give clinicians a historical, ethical, and philosophical base to power decision making in a time when rapid technological and market place changes force clinical practice onto unsure ground.

In my dissertation work, I looked at the reception of psychoanalytic psychiatry in Hawaii after World War II. Psychoanalysis was the dominant clinical approach in the United States in from the 1940’s until the 1960’s.  Yet in Hawaii, a U.S. Territory (and eventually a full-fledged state) psychoanalysis was never popular. I argued that psychoanalysis failed in Hawaii because it did not have a sophisticated theory of how culture impacted mental health, something that was self evident for Hawaiian mental health leaders. And while American politicians looked to Hawaii as a “melting pot” of racial harmony (that might serve as an example for racial integration in the Jim Crow South), Hawaiian mental health experts were reading sociology journals that made them anxious about the anomie, isolation, and confusion that resulted from the breakdown of traditional cultures.

My current research looks at the historical interface between pain and addiction. I trace the history of these as “nested” concepts — ideas that have a dialectical relationship and cannot easily be separated. I follow these ideas from the 1920’s to the 1950’s, when surprisingly sophisticated formulations of pain and addiction were allowed to flourish, through the current period, in which I argue that dogmas have reintroduced problematic splits between mind, body, spirit, and behavior and have contributed to the recent epidemic of prescription opiate deaths in the United States.

Last modified: September 24, 2015