Meet Emily Mendenhall, PhD, MPH

Emily Mendenhall
Headshot of Emily Mendenhall

Emily Mendenhall, PhD, MPH is a medical anthropologist, expert in global health, public health and mental health, and Professor in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, where she leads the global health concentration in the Science, Technology, and International Affairs (STIA) Program.

Emily Mendenhall’s research explores the power of stories, what people say and how they choose to talk about suffering; as well as the interactions between health and other dimensions of people’s lives, that require just as much, if not more, attention than the physical for people to heal. This became central to her work that was her focus for more than a decade, where Professor Mendenhall spent time learning about people’s perceptions and experiences living with social trauma, depression, and type 2 diabetes in urban contexts in the United States, India, South Africa, and Kenya. This led to several articles and a book entitled, Rethinking Diabetes: Entanglements with Trauma, Poverty, and HIV, as well as her first book focused on four years of research at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, Syndemic Suffering: Social Distress, Depression, and Diabetes among Mexican Immigrant Women. Much of her other work had focused on the concept of syndemics, which–although an anthropological concept–brings people across disciplines to consider how social and health conditions travel together. Her most impactful work was published in The Lancet medical journal as a Series on Syndemics.

Mendenhall also put stories at the center of her most recent book on COVID-19 in her hometown in northwest Iowa. While spending the 2020 summer with her family, she conducted an ethnographic study about how and why many people prioritized the economy over public health prevention. The work questioned why people turned toward local beliefs and priorities during a global crisis, setting a scene for informing policymakers navigating divergent views of small rural communities who will face future global challenges. This was published as a book, Unmasked: COVID, Community, and the Case of Okoboji, as well as a series of comics in the magazine, Sapiens.

Her research has also been published in various prestigious journals, such as Social Science & Medicine, Social Science & Medicine – Mental Health, Nature, Nature Human Behaviour, and Global Public Health, as well as in numerous public-facing outlets, ranging from Vox and The Atlantic to Scientific American and Sapiens. Her most recent updates can be found on her personal website.

Featured scholarship

Cover of Emily Mendenhall's book Unmasked: blue background, drawing of a facemask


March 16th, 2022

In this book, Emily Mendenhall writes about what happened in her hometown, Okoboji, a small Iowan tourist town, when a collective turn from the coronavirus to the economy occurred in the COVID summer of 2020. State political failures, local negotiations among political and public health leaders, and community (dis)belief about the virus resulted in Okoboji being declared a hotspot just before the Independence Day weekend, when an influx of half a million people visit the town.…

“Syndemic Theory, Methods, and Data”

December 14th, 2021

Emily Mendenhall, Timothy Newfield and Alexander Tsai introduce an Special Issue of Social Science & Medicine, focused on Rethinking Syndemics through time, space, and method.…

A woman carries a large jug of water through Gado refugee camp

“Introduction: Migration and Health in Social Context”

April 7th, 2021

Emily Mendenhall and Seth M. Holmes introduce the BMJ Global Health journal’s issue on “Migration and Health in Social Context”, focused on the social, political and economic structural factors that impede or facilitate health among the most vulnerable migrants seeking care from clinical settings globally.…

Rethinking diabetes cover

Rethinking Diabetes

July 15th, 2019

In Rethinking Diabetes, Emily Mendenhall investigates how global and local factors transform how diabetes is perceived, experienced, and embodied from place to place.…

Featured writing

Featured media appearances

NutrireCoLab logo

NutrireCoLab Episode 7: Interview with Professor Emily Mendenhall about her New Book Unmasked

March 1st, 2022

Lauren Carruth interviews Emily Mendenhall about how people in her hometown in northwest Iowa responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. She describes why people unmasked and how social relations within the community played out over the course of the pandemic. Many people were very cautious, while some people ignored public health recommendations for personal gain.…

Lake Okoboji is a popular summertime destination for Midwestern tourists, many of whom were not deterred by the COVID-19 pandemic

“Emily Mendenhall Unmasks COVID-19 Denialism in her Hometown”, the Walsh School of Foreign Service Presents Mendenhall’s New Book

December 8th, 2021

The Walsh School of Foreign Service presents Emily Mendenhall’s upcoming book, “Unmasked: COVID, Community and the Case of Okoboji”. “Unmasked” unpacks the “everyday disagreements” about COVID-19 Mendenhall observed firsthand in her hometown during that first pandemic summer. The book is also an examination of the performance of politics as social and cultural practice.…

Featured event appearances

The SSM – Mental Health Video Podcast on Flourishing and Health in Critical Perspective. The panelists are Emily Mendenhall and Sarah S. Willen

Social Science & Medicine – Mental Health Video Podcast: Emily Mendenhall on Flourishing and Health in Critical Perspective

April 13th, 2022

Emily Mendenhall and Sarah S. Willen talk about “Flourishing and Health in Critical Perspective: An Invitation to Interdisciplinary Dialogue,” the first series of the Social Science & Medicine – Mental Health journal. The conversation centers around how interdisciplinary dialogue can improve the way we study flourishing and health – and the clinical and policy interventions we propose.…

Collage of images of the launch of Emily Mendenhall's Unmasked, showing the author, students, and members of the STIA Program, the Global Health Initiative and the Mortara Center for International Studies, at the Riggs Library

The Annual Maloy Distinguished Lecture on Global Health | Unmasked: COVID, Community, and the Case of Okoboji by Emily Mendenhall

April 4th, 2022

On April 4 , 2022, the Science, Technology and International Affairs (STIA) Program, in partnership with the Global Health Initiative and the Mortara Center for International Studies, will host The Annual Maloy Distinguished Lecture on Global Health. Join the panel discussion of Emily Mendenhall’s newest book, Unmasked: COVID, Community, and the Case of Okoboji.…