He was a non-Western doctor who helped give a Eurocentric, introspective field of medicine a global presence that it sorely lacked. He all but built the mental health system from the ground up in Taiwan, later helping governments in other developing nations do the same.
And he pushed for research that would, for the first time, rigorously document the prevalence of mental disorders worldwide, demonstrating that people from far-flung lands had many emotional struggles in common, whatever their cultural or economic differences.
Lin Tsung-yi (林宗義), a psychiatrist who rose to become the director of mental health at the WHO, died on July 20 at 89, his daughter Elizabeth said, adding that the family had not made the death public until this month.
For decades, Lin was one of the world’s most persuasive and effective advocates for psychiatry as a centerpiece of public health, on par with infectious diseases and chronic medical conditions.
“It all makes sense today, but in the 1960s and 1970s the whole idea of doing epidemiology in psychiatry was outre, out there; it just didn’t seem logical to people,” said Arthur Kleinman, a psychiatrist and medical anthropologist at Harvard.
Lin changed that.
“He saw that psychiatry could not develop on a global stage without a presence in public health, and he was one of the early leaders who really framed that presence,” Kleinman said.
Lin was not long out of medical training when, in 1953, he published a scientific survey of mental disorders in Taiwan, the first of its kind. Later, at the WHO, he began a far more extensive effort, the International Pilot Study of Schizophrenia, an inventory of that mental disorder in developing as well as Western countries.
The study showed striking similarities in the symptoms and prevalence of schizophrenia among many countries and revealed differences in quality of care. It set a standard for psychiatric epidemiology and led to decades of subsequent research into other disorders, like depression and anxiety, as well as interventions for treatment.
Lin continued to develop research methods throughout most of his career, at universities in Europe, the US and finally, Canada, at the University of British Columbia.
In Taiwan, where in the 1950s and 1960s he devised and helped establish a modern mental healthcare system, Lin was seen as more than a medical figure. His father, a prominent intellectual, was killed in the 228 Incident, in which Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) troops fired on Taiwanese protesters in 1947, setting off a wave of violence that left thousands of Taiwanese dead.
In 1998, Lin edited a book, An Introduction to the 2-28 Tragedy in Taiwan: For World Citizens, which in part laid out a blueprint for reconciliation between the Taiwanese and Mainlanders who moved to Taiwan from China following the KMT’s loss to the Chinese Communist Party in the Chinese Civil War.
Then president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) “basically implemented the plan that Tsung-yi proposed,” said Robert Solomon, president of the US Institute of Peace. “It was a seminal contribution to a society that was deeply wounded and divided.”
Lin was born on Sept. 19, 1920, in Tainan. Both his father, Lin Mo-sheng (林茂生), a professor, and his mother, Wang Chai-hwang (王采蘩), received higher education in Japan, as did their son.