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 media, scholarship, and events

“Syndemics and Clinical Science”

July 21st, 2022

Emily Mendenhall and her co-authors discuss the emergence of syndemics, how epidemics interact, and what scientists, clinicians and policymakers can do with this information.…

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.…

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COVID, Quickly, Episode 27: “Second Boosters, Masks in the Next Wave and Smart Risk Decisions”, Scientific American Looks at Emily Mendenhall’s Research About Attitudes Toward Masks

April 1st, 2022

In this episode of the “COVID, Quickly”, Scientific American’s senior health editors Tanya Lewis and Josh Fischman look at Emily Mendenhall’s research on people’s attitudes towards masks, to understand how the decision to wear a mask reflects people’s perceptions of risk and views about government.…

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

Unmasked

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.…

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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.…

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NutrireCoLab Episode 5: Edna Bosire in Conversation with Emily Mendenhall on her Work at the Intersection of Health, Nutrition, Anthropology, and Health Systems

February 14th, 2022

Emily Mendenhall interviews her longtime colleague Edna Bosire about her personal journey in the field of anthropology, and her work at the intersection of health, nutrition, anthropology, and health systems. Bosire also provides insights into her work as an ethnographer of health policy and systems in Malawi and in her work with Health Systems Global.…

“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.…

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.…

“The Anthropology of Health Systems: A History and Review”

August 13th, 2021

Emily Mendenhall and her co-authors conceptualize the anthropology of health systems as a field; review the history of this body of knowledge; and outline emergent literatures on policymaking, HIV, hospitals, Community Health Workers, health markets, pharmaceuticals, and metrics. They describe high-quality ethnographic work as an excellent way to understand the complex systems that shape health outcomes, which provides a critical vantage point for thinking about global health policy and systems.…

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.…

Graffitti covering map of Washington DC. The graffitti shows the icon of Donald Trump three times, the hair color of the first is yellow, of the second red, and the third green. Under each, the word "lies" is written. Underneath appears the word "Covid!"

“On Symbols and Scripts: The Politics of the American COVID-19 Response”

March 19th, 2021

Emily Mendenhall and her co-authors argue that, to unravel the American COVID-19 crisis —and to craft effective responses—, a more sophisticated understanding of the political culture of public health crises is needed. According to the researchers, the social processes of meaning-making help explain the evolution of increasingly partisan public health discourse regarding topics like masking and institutional trust. They consider how and why certain issues gain political valence, and what opportunities certain acts of politicization provide in shifting public discourse.…

“A Spectrum of (Dis)Belief: Coronavirus Frames in a Rural Midwestern Town in the United States”

February 9th, 2021

Emily Mendenhall and her co-authors investigate how society in rural America reacted to the coronavirus outbreaks of 2020. Without government COVID-19 mandates, conflicting moral beliefs divided American communities. Social fragmentation, based on conflicting values, led to an incomplete pandemic response in the absence of government mandates, opening the floodgates to coronavirus.…

“’Thinking Too Much’: A Systematic Review of the Idiom of Distress in Sub-Saharan Africa”

January 2nd, 2021

In this systematic review, Emily Mendenhall and her co-authors take a look at the idiom “thinking too much”. This idiom is employed in cultural settings worldwide to express feelings of emotional and cognitive disquiet with psychological, physical, and social consequences on people’s well-being and daily functioning. The researchers analyze how, where, and among whom this idiom is used within varied Sub-Saharan African contexts.…

“Metabolic Reflections: Blurring the Line between Trauma and Diabetes”

August 24th, 2020

Emily Mendenhall argues for clinical studies of diabetes to recognize the impacts of chronic stress and trauma on metabolism. In her anthropological research, she has identified how lines between trauma and diabetes are blurred and violence and subjugation may irreversibly impact metabolism, even across generations. Thus, changes to diet and exercise alone will not solve the global and local undercurrents of the diabetes epidemic.…

Two Indian women and a child on diabetes consultation, with three medical personnel on a counter, with forms and a device for measuring the levels of sugar on the blood

Emily Mendenhall on Why We Need to Rethink Diabetes

July 18th, 2019

Emily Mendenhall challenges the idea that diabetes is a “lifestyle disease”, which views individuals as solely responsible for diabetes. Mendenhall argues that diabetes is a product of society, of both global and local factors.…

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.…