In this article, I examine the use of an ad hoc medical category—the “social case”—by psychiatrists in contemporary Romania. “Social cases” receive intensive psychiatric care, usually through long institutional stays, remaining hospitalized because psychiatrists perceive them as too poor and, thus, “unfit” to survive without the welfare assistance provided by institutionalization. The “social case” label emerges at the intersection of (1) plans by the state to deinstitutionalize public mental health care, (2) the rise of a new class of downwardly mobile and increasingly poor formerly working-class people, and (3) the desire of psychiatrists to protect their patients in the face of neoliberal assaults on Romanian welfare state support for publicly funded mental health care. Disability status, illness categories, and everyday medical practices have become battlegrounds for struggles over medical understandings of the psychological distress and illnesses that grip what I call the “New Poor” in postsocialist Romania.
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