Photo of Dr Felicity Thomas

Dr Felicity Thomas

Senior Research Fellow


01392 724249

I am a Research Fellow on the Cultural Contexts of Health, and a Senior Research Fellow in the Medical School.

After working for several years in the international development sector, I pursued doctoral research on the impacts of HIV and AIDS on rural livelihoods and social support networks in southern Africa. More recently, my work has focused on understanding and addressing the social and cultural factors that perpetuate health inequalities.

Drawing primarily on narrative, ethnographic and participatory approaches, my research examines the ways that people experience health and illness and make decisions over treatment use. I am particularly interested in understanding how certain health 'conditions' become medicalised, and the ways that this inter-relates with poverty, disadvantage and health-related inequalities. My current ESRC-funded project (DE-STRESS) is concerned with understanding how moral narratives relating to responsibility and welfare reform influence the medicalisation of distress and the uptake of antidepressants in low-income communities in the UK.

My work has focused on the health and well-being of low-income communities, migrants and families with complex needs; sexual health and HIV; environment-related health inequities; and the promotion of healthy schools.

I am co-director (with Professor Mark Jackson) of the WHO Collaborating Centre on Culture and Health and work closely with the WHO Regional Office for Europe project on the Cultural Contexts of Health (


Research interests

Current research:

Poverty, pathology and pills: moral narratives and the medicalisation of distress (ESRC ref: ES/N018281/1).

The provision of effective treatment and support for mental distress is a stated aim of the British Government and many civil society organisations. Within low-income communities, use of antidepressant medications is relatively high. However, current strategies frame mental distress as a psychological problem that lies within the individual concerned. This not only suggests that such distress can be 'corrected' through medical treatment, but also masks the factors that often underlie the root causes of suffering e.g. poor living conditions, unemployment. At the same time, policies in place to restrict welfare support, and popular media e.g. Benefits Street, draw on moralising narratives that promote the idea that people should take responsibility for their actions and circumstances. This research is exploring how people in low-income communities perceive and respond to mental distress caused by material deprivation and social disadvantage. Addressing key knowledge gaps, attention will be given to understanding: i) the role of moral narratives in influencing decisions to seek medical support for mental distress; ii) how these narratives manifest within GP consultations and influence treatment decisions and patient wellbeing.

Research team: Felicity Thomas (PI), Katrina Wyatt (Exeter), Rose McCabe (Exeter) and Richard Byng (Plymouth).


Cultural contexts of health (collaboration with WHO Regional Office for Europe)

Our experiences of health, and our interactions with those who care for us, are strongly influenced by the cultural contexts we inhabit. Yet whilst there has been a recent drive to understand the social determinants of health, the ways in which societal norms, value systems, traditions and beliefs impact on health pathways and outcomes are often ignored, as is the frequently positive, protective impact that culture can have in the face of certain health challenges. We are working with WHO to systematically investigate the cultural contexts of health and well-being across the European Region, and to embed humanities and social sciences research and methodological approaches into the public health sector.



Research supervision

I am open to discussing research proposals on any subject area relevant to my expertise. I am especially happy to consider working with candidates with interests in the following areas:

  • medicalisation and pharmaceuticalisation
  • cultural contexts of health and well-being
  • migration and health
  • sexual health and well-being


I have a strong interest in interdisciplinary teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate levels and am keen to expand the medical curriculum to bring in the perspectives afforded by the humanities and social sciences. I am currently teaching on the following modules:

HISM017 Critical Approaches to Medical Humanities

CSC4013M Frontiers in Global Health