Sunday, January 17, 2010

Americanization of Mental Illness

Very interesting article on mental illness here in the NY Times.

Different times and different cultures have different mental illnesses. Having the vapours was confined to Victorian women, and the fear that the penis is retracting into the body is confined to south-east Asian men. But we - and by 'we' I mean westerners - are convinced that our scientific classification of mental illness into the things that get into the DSM is the 'real' classification of illness and anything that went before is just superstition. It's not - the DSM is as culture bound and time bound as anyone else's explanation - but we're exporting it. According to the article, the idea of 'anorexia' being a disorder of women with body dysmorphia was unknown to the Chinese, but took hold in Hong Kong in a matter of months after a notable death. I assume Googling 'anorexia' led to the new belief. Within a few years, the common understanding of anorexia in China matched the general understanding in the west.

As well as this fascinating angle, the article goes on to discuss how the perception of mental illness changes depending on the understanding of the cause. Decimating the article for reasons of space, one could write that an understood cause of demonic possession leads the community to sympathize with the sufferer, who should therefore be supported through the travail, while a diagnosis of chemical imbalance (the western model) leads to fear of the suffering individual, who is regarded as irrational and 'mad'. In the west, where individuality is prized, this also leads to the friends and relatives of the sufferer expressing negative opinions of the sufferer's ability to maintain their own individuality. Similar negative opinions are apparently exported with the western diagnoses.

I found it fascinating, and not just because of:

"The problem becomes especially worrisome in a time of globalization, when symptom repertoires can cross borders with ease. Having been trained in England and the United States, Lee knows better than most the locomotive force behind Western ideas about mental health and illness."



Sometimes you can't tell whether a journalist does this wordplay unconsciously or because they are clever wordsmiths. But it's a great pun either way.

And the article is much more serious than I am, and worth a read.

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