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The Americanization/Westernization of Mental Illness
For a long time, America has Americanized the perception of mental illness and the general understanding of health. It has been at the forefront in homogenizing the world view on the treatment of the disease. The American approach is based on the summaries made by psychiatrists and anthropologists. They put forward the argent that mental disease cannot be treated as a distinct disease with its own natural history (Lunbeck 59). They gathered massive evidence, indicating that occurrences of mental illnesses have never been similar in the entire world either in form or in prevalence. They posited that mental illnesses are caused and influenced by the beliefs of a particular place and the particular time, during which the illness occurs. This paper discusses the fact that the drawbacks of Americanization of mental illness outweigh the benefits.
Different cultures have different perception of mental illness. Men from South East Asia, for instance, suffer from amok, an episode characterized by murderous rage that ends in amnesia (Watters). Another form of mental illness in the region is koro, a condition caused by the bizarre belief that retraction of the body into the genitals is occurring. The zar phenomenon occurs in the Middle East and it is a mental condition, brought forth by the beliefs about being possessed by spirits and it is usually characterized by singing, shouting and laughing (Watters).
In the 1890s, in Europe there existed a group of people known as mad travelers who would walk for miles in a state of trance, having forgotten their identities (Trager 121). Women were also known to suffer from hysteria because the social restrictions of that period led them to the expression of distress through hysterical symptoms. Episodes of mental illnesses differ invariably all over the globe. Some episodes are characterized by leg pains, inability to speak and occurrence of convulsions (Trager 122). Others manifest themselves through the wrong estimates of body weight, slurred speech and abdominal pains. The symptoms regarded as legitimate signs of psychiatric disorder are chosen by those who attend mentally ill individuals, such as priests and doctors. The treatment of mental illness is influenced by the healers with distinct scientific and religious beliefs. Madness differs from time to time and varies from one individual to another.
The West has constantly spread its view across the globe concerning mental illness, using the scientific methods and explanations in order to dispel the stigma and myths that surround the occurrence of mental illness (Lunbeck 60). Evidence suggests that this has resulted in “exportation” of the symptom profiles of mental illness. This has changed both the process of diagnosing and treating mental illness in other countries. The mental diseases, widely-spread in America, such as anorexia, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression have infiltrated other cultures in the world. The new categories of mental illnesses have replaced the original and traditional forms of mental illness (Watters).
One of the leading researchers and psychiatrist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Dr. Lee was able to witness a firsthand account of Americanization of mental illness. Between 1980 and 1980 he was studying a very rare form of anorexia in Hong Kong, known as anorexia nervosa. The anorexics under study differed from the American anorexics in that they neither suffered from the fear of becoming fat nor were they dieting deliberately (Watters). The most common symptom among them was bloating of the stomach. Lee was studying the indigenous occurrence of the disease in Hong Kong and the reasons why it was not common. He was about to publish his findings that the refusal of food contributed to the anorexia when the public perception of anorexia suddenly changed.
On November 24, 1994 a teenage girl, suffering from Anorexia, died on a street in Hong Kong. The media gave a lot of attention to the incident, driving home the point that she was obsessed about weight loss so that anorexia turned her body into bones and skin (Watters). The Chinese media explained the incident using American diagnosis journals and manuals. This case of anorexia occurrence was reported to be similar to the one happening in Europe and in the United States. The knowledge therefore moved from the west to the east and the eastern knowledge that had been prepared by researchers, such as Dr. Lee was completely ignored. The rapid transfer of Western ideas did not just affect the perception of anorexia in Hong Kong, it also affected the general public as more and more people started believing that they suffered from anorexia (Watters). Dr Lee was used to see from two to three anorexic patients annually, but he was not ready to see a higher number monthly.
The number of women claiming that they suffered from anorexia due to a phobia of growing fat increased from 10% in the 1990s to 90% in 2007 (Lunbeck 60). The symptoms of the new patients subscribe to the Western perception of anorexia. Culture greatly influences psychopathology and when eating disorder or any other form of mental illness is publicized, people may unconsciously or subconsciously think that they are suffering from the disorder. Mental-health experts in the United States and in the West categorize mental illnesses as a specific group and use diagnostic manuals for promotion. The diagnostic manuals become adopted internationally as worldwide standards (Trager 124). Drug companies in the west sponsor researches and conference forums. Upon identification of a category of mental illness they make billions, selling medication for the mental illness (Trager 130).
The domination of Western and American categories of mental illnesses subdues the other cultures, which affects the nature and extent of the patient’s disease. For instance, without introduction of the Western version of anorexia, it would not have become too common in Hong Kong. It is noteworthy to mention that it took Western professionals more than 50 years to name and categorize anorexia as a form of mental illness. Yet it only took hours for the case of the girl who went unconscious on the street of Hong Kong Street to be identified as anorexic (Watters).
American medical profession is reluctant to join the discussion that the American view of mental illness maybe affecting the diagnosis of the illness in other cultures (Watters). They hold the belief that the categories and drugs are based on scientific revelations and therefore there is no need to keep observing unstable cultural practices and trends. Modern psychiatrists and other practitioners in the field of mental health feel pity about the experience of the previous psychologists and psychiatrists for being engrossed in the cultural trends of that time. The doctors who first detected hysteria were treated like worn out artifacts of culture. Illnesses found outside the American culture, such as koro, amok etc are known as ’culture bound symptoms’ (Watters). The diagnosis in the manual is not affected by cultural beliefs. The American doctors presuppose that this is the case for the whole globe. They argue that application of the diagnostic manual should not be criticized since it is an indication of progress of scientific knowledge.
People become psychologically disturbed for many reasons, such as imbalance of chemicals in the brain, social turmoil and trauma. Science has contributed in revealing the actual causes of mental illnesses. However, no matter what triggers the mental illness, the patient and those around him will often rely on culture to explain the illness. They base their theories on witchcraft, the fact of being possessed by spirits, loss of semen among other factors and they often shape the course that the patient’s illness takes (Lunbeck 61). Cross-cultural anthropologists and psychiatrists are therefore of the opinion that mental diseases can be influenced by cultural beliefs in the modern world just like hysteria or any other mental illness, experienced by mankind. Since mental illnesses affect the mind, they cannot be understood without considering the culture and attitudes spread in the environment, to which the mind is exposed.
The Western approach of raising awareness by describing mental illnesses in biomedical terms has only led to the loss of the war against stigma. Perceived danger of the people suffering from schizophrenia in the United States rapidly moved up from 1950 to 1996 and has been on its steady increase since then. In Germany, the desire to keep distance from patients diagnosed as schizophrenic rose dramatically from 1990 to 2001 (Watters). Even in Turkey, Mongolia and Eastern Asia people indicated a stronger desire to avoid mental illness patients after learning that they could be suffering from a brain disease (Trager 130).
On the other hand, according to a study conducted by The World Health Organization people in developing nations seem to cope better with schizophrenia than those in Western nations in a period of 30 years from the 1970s. Patients outside the Western world demonstrated the lower rates of deterioration. Researcher Juli McGruder from Zanzibar found out that this could be explained by the fact that in the developing nations mental illnesses are blamed for being connected to spirits and other superstitious behavior patterns (Watters). Rather than stigmatizing the victim, the beliefs motivated the family and community to hold interventions and other activities to redeem the mental patient. Thus, the social and family ties were maintained during the period of illness. Patients were able to draw strength from these interactions.
To the extent to which American drugs and psychological regimes aid in healing mental illnesses, the rest of the globe should be capable of accessing them. However, the scientific facts must be examined in regard to the cultural beliefs of a particular place because no occurrence of mental illness is universal. Offering the latest forms of scientific technology without regard to cross-cultural practices may not be a solution; it might be a contributing factor to the problem. When local traditions are undermined, the factors that cause mental distress are accelerated.
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