Friday, January 22, 2010

American-style mental illness displacing indigenous forms?

Here's a strange idea explored in this New York Times Magazine article: as American ideas about mental illness spread, the symptoms that mentally ill people around the world suffer are actually changing, becoming more like the symptoms Americans suffer. A snippet:
For more than a generation now, we in the West have aggressively spread our modern knowledge of mental illness around the world. We have done this in the name of science, believing that our approaches reveal the biological basis of psychic suffering and dispel prescientific myths and harmful stigma. There is now good evidence to suggest that in the process of teaching the rest of the world to think like us, we’ve been exporting our Western “symptom repertoire” as well. That is, we’ve been changing not only the treatments but also the expression of mental illness in other cultures. Indeed, a handful of mental-health disorders — depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anorexia among them — now appear to be spreading across cultures with the speed of contagious diseases. These symptom clusters are becoming the lingua franca of human suffering, replacing indigenous forms of mental illness.
I wonder how much of this is perceptual (people report more depression once they have a category for it) and how much is actual change in behavior (people are more likely to get depressed when they have a category for it). I know that when I got diagnosed with depression, I quickly started showing even more sypmtoms. (Thankfully I am now almost fully recovered. And I'm sure my therapist and doctor and family telling me I'm more normal makes me exhibit more symptoms of normality.)


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