The West Colonizes Mental Illness

Such new behavior!

If you haven’t already checked it out, take a look at “The Americanization of Mental Illness” in the last NYT Magazine.

Some quotes:

[R]esearchers have amassed an impressive body of evidence suggesting that mental illnesses have never been the same the world over… 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.

The diversity that can be found across cultures can be seen across time as well. In his book “Mad Travelers,” the philosopher Ian Hacking documents the fleeting appearance in the 1890s of a fugue state in which European men would walk in a trance for hundreds of miles with no knowledge of their identities. The hysterical-leg paralysis that afflicted thousands of middle-class women in the late 19th century not only gives us a visceral understanding of the restrictions set on women’s social roles at the time but can also be seen from this distance as a social role itself — the troubled unconscious minds of a certain class of women speaking the idiom of distress of their time.


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.


Mental-health professionals in the West, and in the United States in particular, create official categories of mental diseases and promote them in a diagnostic manual that has become the worldwide standard. American researchers and institutions run most of the premier scholarly journals and host top conferences in the fields of psychology and psychiatry. Western drug companies dole out large sums for research and spend billions marketing medications for mental illnesses.

Is this another one of them Objective Sciences which it turns out was never objective at all? Oh my god, ARE OUR ENDEAVORS INFLUENCED BY OUR CULTURE!? Next you’ll be telling me that persuasion and/or force can change people’s behavior, and that drug companies have some sort of motive to make a profit. Well that’s all silly.

It’s much easier to believe that if America can police the world, logically America can police the world’s mental health too. Because we’re Americans, we’re exceptional, and what I mean by that is, we’re exceptionally right about everything. So if American doctors and drug companies say people experience mental illness a certain way, they’re saying that because they are, objectively speaking, right, and not because they are fallible human beings armed with research but also with hubris. And potentially, with capital at stake.

I was pretty impressed that the NYT ran an article that would challenge stuff like mental health colonization, the eternal rightness of America, the objectivity of science, and the unassailable authority of mental health professionals. It got my gears turning, certainly. It also made me recall the book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman, which essentially deals with this very issue. A family of Hmong refugees in California has an epileptic daughter, and great conflict ensues between how the doctors and the family view and treat the illness.

Question Cultural Infallibility.

White Does Not Equal Right.

West Does Not Equal Best.


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