Old Sock Drawer

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#092: A new look at mental illness

January 13th, 2010 by Mary Leong

Currently listening to: “Nowhere with You” – Joel Plaskett

The Americanization of Mental Illness

This intriguing article from the New York Times on the gradual Americanization of perceptions on mental disorders is incredibly worth reading. The article presents an interesting take on the effects seen from the spread of Western labels and generalized treatment of mental disorders. In bringing up the Western (American)-dominated field of psychological research, the article discusses its subsequent influence on the spread and development of disorders initially unseen in other parts of the world.

An example mentioned in the article which is particularly fascinating is that of the development of the Chinese understanding of anorexia nervosa, where afflicted individuals shifted away from a culturally-specific set of symptoms to a more “Americanized” set of symptoms after the disorder was popularized in the media. This is especially interesting in considering the fluid and changing nature of human mentality and physicality in accordance with outside thought influences, even on supposedly universal human phenomena such as illness.

And amidst all this, a thinly-veiled layer of skepticism around our efforts at globalizing – or rather, generalizing – medical research across vastly different cultures: fascinating article, really; do check it out.

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4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Erica Jan 13, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    Hey are you in my WMST 102 that is at 10am MWF? Saweet!

  • 2 Mary L Jan 13, 2010 at 8:50 pm

    @Erica – No, I am not, unfortunately. But I did notice your lovely presence at our AUS meeting this Monday!

  • 3 Eastwood Jan 18, 2010 at 10:36 pm

    Very interesting read.

    Without a doubt, the diagnoses and treatment of mental illness has come a long way. We have witnessed its turbulent development from Freudian origins to the relatively recent biomedical revolution. For the past decade, however, North American health care education has adopted a greater emphasis on the biopsychosocial model: we cannot examine an illness without considering its biological, psychological, and sociological components. Indeed, the traditional dichotomies of “gene versus experience” is being replaced by an examination of the interaction between these complex factors.

    Culture is a major determinant of health. (Surprise! :P )

    Regarding the increasing incidence of Anorexia in Hong Kong, perhaps it is not simply due to the globalisation of mental illness, but also due to increased public and professional awareness of the disorder, that Dr. Lee witnessed more cases. Take Autism and the associated spectrum of disorders, for example: general public awareness and increased research led to a large number of new diagnoses in North America.

    Psychology FTW!

  • 4 Mary L Jan 20, 2010 at 11:49 pm

    @Eastwood: You bring up some interesting points – I knew I could count on your to bring an equal measure of Psych geekery (woot)! I would like to reply to your point on “increasing incidence of Anorexia in Hong Kong” – the key point articulated in the article which was particularly curious was not the increased prevalence of the disease, but rather, the shift in symptoms experienced by patients suffering from anorexia, moving from one set of symptoms which were specific to patients in HK to a set of more “universally-considered” anorexia symptoms. And that is what I find fascinating, rather than simply the increase in cases.

    With regards to that, I totally agree that increased awareness causes an increase in diagnosis. Though, one must also take into consideration the continual change in the definition of these mental disorders which may lead to more people being diagnosed as well, such as in the cases of ADD and ADHD in school-age children in recent years, with the expanded definition in the DSM.