The Americanization of Mental Illness

Colonial powers have always forced their particular views of the world on the people they dominate, secure in the knowledge that, since they are right and the ‘savages’ are wrong, their  actions are more than justified: they’re noble and charitable. Years later, with a different worldview in vogue, they look back in shame on the cruelty and closed-mindedness of their past. They often do this as they force their current beliefs on people around the world in the name of development and without a hint of irony, because this time they’re absolutely certain that what they believe is right.

Ethan Watters, writing in the New York Times, discusses the unfortunate exportation of American views on mental illness around the world:

AMERICANS, particularly if they are of a certain leftward-leaning, college-educated type, worry about our country’s blunders into other cultures. In some circles, it is easy to make friends with a rousing rant about the McDonald’s near Tiananmen Square, the Nike factory in Malaysia or the latest blowback from our political or military interventions abroad. For all our self-recrimination, however, we may have yet to face one of the most remarkable effects of American-led globalization. We have for many years been busily engaged in a grand project of Americanizing the world’s understanding of mental health and illness. We may indeed be far along in homogenizing the way the world goes mad.

This unnerving possibility springs from recent research by a loose group of anthropologists and cross-cultural psychiatrists. Swimming against the biomedical currents of the time, they have argued that mental illnesses are not discrete entities like the polio virus with their own natural histories. These researchers have amassed an impressive body of evidence suggesting that mental illnesses have never been the same the world over (either in prevalence or in form) but are inevitably sparked and shaped by the ethos of particular times and places. In some Southeast Asian cultures, men have been known to experience what is called amok, an episode of murderous rage followed by amnesia; men in the region also suffer from koro, which is characterized by the debilitating certainty that their genitals are retracting into their bodies. Across the fertile crescent of the Middle East there is zar, a condition related to spirit-possession beliefs that brings forth dissociative episodes of laughing, shouting and singing.

Among the mental illnesses considered by many American psychologists to be universal are depression and anorexia, although all historical evidence has shown that these illnesses have only appeared in areas where the Western influence had reached a certain level. Watters goes on to discuss the different views of mental illness in societies where it is thought of scientifically to the ones where it is thought of as a spiritual illness, like demonic posession. Interestingly, schizophrenics in cultures where it is seen as demonic posession tend to have more stable lives and less severe episodes of the illness. This is because of the different ways in which their family members and friends treat them. Having just finished reading The Wayfinders, the most recent Massey Lecture by Wade Davies, it tied in well with what I was reading:

For several centuries the rational mind has been ascendant, even though science, its finest expression, can still in all its brilliance only answer the question how, but never come close to addressing the ultimate question: why. The inherent limitation of the scientific model has long provoked a certain existential dilemma, familiar to many of us taught since childhood that the universe can only be understood as the random action of minute atomic particles spinning and interacting in space. But more significantly, the reduction of the world to a mechanism, with nature but an obstacle to overcome, a resource to be exploited, has in good measure determined the manner in which our cultural tradition has blindly interacted with the living planet.

The Americanization of Mental Illness [NYTimes]

[via Boing Boing]

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