Exporting American mental illness

The New York Times Magazine has a great discussion of the effects of the exportation of American ideas about mental illness, titled appropriately, The Americanization of Mental Illness by Ethan Watters, based on his forthcoming book, Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, coming out this month from Free Press. The article is quite good, offering some intriguing cases, such as the rise of virulent, American-style anorexia nervosa in Hong Kong, the effect of possession beliefs on communities’ reactions to schizophrenia, and how the narrative of mental illness as ‘brain disease’ might actually lead to great stigma as it spreads and replaces local understandings. The article is well worth a read, and I’m looking forward to the book.

graphic by Alex Trochut, NYTimes

The ethnographic record is full of conditions that didn’t make it into the most recent edition of the DSM — amok, nervios, koro, zar — you can check out Wikipedia or some other source on ‘culture bound syndromes,’ such as Introduction to Culture-Bound Syndromes in Psychiatric Times, to get a fuller discussion of some of these conditions. The Psychiatric Times piece suggests that there are at least 200 culture-bound syndromes.

One thing I really liked about the New York Times Magazine article, however (and by extension, Watters’ book, I suspect), is that the discussion of ‘culture-bound syndromes’ usually tends to treat other people’s syndromes as ‘culture-bound,’ Western psychological illnesses as not ‘culture-bound.’ Watters’ work points out that Western mental illness is both itself culture-bound and that persuading people to believe in Western-style mental illness can affect the way that psychic disorders manifest.

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