Mental illness and missing stories

Alhough the standard psychiatric diagnostic manual relegates ‘culture-bound’ illnesses to an exotic appendix at the end of the book, Western conceptions of mental illness are themselves ‘culture-bound’—an observation close to my historian-of-science’s heart, and one well-explored in both Watters’ article and in this thoughtful commentary.

No one would suggest that we withhold our medical advances from other countries, but it’s perhaps past time to admit that even our most remarkable scientific leaps in understanding the brain haven’t yet created the sorts of cultural stories from which humans take comfort and meaning. When these scientific advances are translated into popular belief and cultural stories, they are often stripped of the complexity of the science and become comically insubstantial narratives. Take for instance this Web site text advertising the antidepressant Paxil: “Just as a cake recipe requires you to use flour, sugar and baking powder in the right amounts, your brain needs a fine chemical balance in order to perform at its best.” The Western mind, endlessly analyzed by generations of theorists and researchers, has now been reduced to a batter of chemicals we carry around in the mixing bowl of our skulls.

All cultures struggle with intractable mental illnesses with varying degrees of compassion and cruelty, equanimity and fear. Looking at ourselves through the eyes of those living in places where madness and psychological trauma are still embedded in complex religious and cultural narratives, however, we get a glimpse of ourselves as an increasingly insecure and fearful people. Some philosophers and psychiatrists have suggested that we are investing our great wealth in researching and treating mental illness — medicalizing ever larger swaths of human experience — because we have rather suddenly lost older belief systems that once gave meaning and context to mental suffering.


from “The Americanization of Mental Illness,” by Ethan Watters, The New York Times Magazine, 10 January 2010 :: via 3quarksdaily

Originally published at culture-making.com.

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