Link: The Americanization of Mental Illness


The Americanization of Mental Illness (New York Times)

I don’t know how I missed this article when it came out. It basically describes a lot of the negative effects that the USA is having on other cultures, when we export our supposedly “scientific, objective” views of “mental illness”. People suddenly starting to show psychiatric symptoms in patterns that never existed in their cultures before that. People suddenly being treated worse (in America and elsewhere) when mental illness is seen as a “brain disease” (suggesting that NAMI’s approach to “stigma” is having the opposite effect to what’s intended — although unfortunately the article didn’t go too much into the fact that it’s a problem when people see something that’s a fixed part of one’s body as being worse than other sorts of problems). People suddenly not faring as well under Americanized treatments than they did in the way their cultures were handling things already. The article doesn’t romanticize how other cultures treat mental illness either — the end says that all cultures have good and bad points in that regard.

I’ve long been disturbed at the way that Western psychiatry treats itself as a science akin to medicine, with “illness” being not just a metaphor but a presumed fact. (Even when I was in the psych system I hated that people would say I “got sick” when I’d just attempted suicide, or other bizarre things like that. I remember a boy in a mental institution with me who was there because he’d taken a gun and shot his television and a bunch of other objects. Someone sent him in a bunch of balloons that said “Get Well Soon” on them. Every last one of us in the dayroom at the time found that bizarre and laughable.) The article emphasizes the way our minds, and therefore our cultures, play a much larger role in shaping these things than Western psychiatry will generally admit. And the idea that we’re sending that part of our culture around the world disturbs me more than most of the other things we export.


About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods. Crochet or otherwise create constantly and compulsively. Write poetry and paint when I can. Developmentally disabled, physically and cognitively disabled. I'm not really part of any online faction or another, even ones that claim me as a member. The thing in the world most important to me is having love and compassion for other people, although I don't always measure up to my own standards there by a longshot. And individual specific actions and situations and contexts matter a lot more to me than broadly-spoken abstract words and ideas about a topic. My father died in 2014 and that has changed my life a lot in ways that are still evolving, but I wear a lot of his clothes and hats every day since he died and have shown no sign of stopping soon.

8 responses »

  1. I’ve read about this problem in my anthropology textbook. An example was the rise of anorexia in heavily Westernized Japan, a country where the illness never traditionally took root. Our culture has also taken away the rights of women in traditionally matriachal cultures such as the Cherokee (Tsalagi) Indians and the Igbo of Nigeria. No wonder there’s so much anti-Americanism from other countries on the Internet.

  2. Hi Amanda,

    I am researching cultural variation in autism currently. I am very interested in the exportation of Western perceptions of autism as a static paradigm, and in helping to dispel this myth. I truly enjoy your work!

    I am hoping (as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst), to develop a critique of ABA for the lack of using cultural specificity in the methodology. I am also interested in looking at autism from a strength-based perspective.

    Your work has hugely influenced me. I am also the parent of a daughter on the spectrum, and my work focuses on strength-based assessments in adults with autism to design useful and meaningful supports.

  3. Wow……..I read the whole article, and your post.

    I had to force myself to keep reading it…..because I was getting more and more creeped out/disturbed…..

    I feel like I have a bit to say about this but nothing is coming out.

    I wish you a speedy recovery from your stomach virus.

  4. >>>I’ve long been disturbed at the way that Western psychiatry treats itself as a science akin to medicine, with “illness” being not just a metaphor but a presumed fact<<<

    Somebody put it, "It is what we say it is."

    I thought it was Neuroskeptic, but I can't find it. He does have some interesting posts on voodoo. My husband always referred to psychiatry as modern voodoo.

    My father was a bartender. As kids, we just saw it as "the human condition". But you can't charge to cure the human condition, because EVERYBODY has it in one way or another.

    • I don’t see any posts about voodoo at Neuroskeptic. Just posts that use the word voodoo as shorthand for who knows what, with pictures influenced by Hollywood voodoo, and all in reference to one article he didn’t write that had voodoo in the title and seemed to be using it in the same shallow Hollywood way.

      Actual voodoo being a set of religions derived from a combination of African, Christian, and sometimes American Indian religions. And there’s a lot more to them than sticking pins in dolls. (Which actually is done for very different reasons than the Hollywood-influenced pictures on that guy’s blog, when it is done at all.) Or other forms of folk magic.

      • I suppose I see voodoo in a simplistic, Hollywood way. I’m not familiar with voodoo, and I said it kind of tongue in cheek.

        The only folk magic I am familiar with is the Lakota Indian corn dance .

  5. Pingback: Metaphors for mental illness – Kitaiska Sandwich

  6. Pingback: Metaphors for mental illness | Neurodiversity

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