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molivares's picture

more on "The Americanization of Mental Illness"

     On the first day of class, while we were discussing neurobiology and behavior and where it is going in the future, we talked about the New York Times article called “The Americanization of Mental Illness.” I was deeply intrigued by this article because I think it pertains to an angle that really resonates with my interests – health and cross-cultural understanding of health and medicine. The article discusses how the Western biomedical model of mental illness is expanding across the globe much like cultural imperialism.  Eating disorders, which have been a prominent epidemic here in the U.S., are becoming more and more prominent in Hong Kong and across the globe. Is it because of our present Western culture and the social norms it propels are expanding East and triggering eating disorders that can be rationalized through that expanding culture and its social norms? Is it because Western biomedical ideas are suggesting to the rest of the world that mental illness should be understood as more of a disease that can be diagnosed through specific criteria listed in the DSM and less of a psycho/social/cultural phenomenon? Who’s to say that this list of criteria in the DSM can be applied globally? And even if it is applied globally, who’s to say that this biomedical understanding of mental illness will benefit all patients worldwide?

    Those who are strong proponents (mental-health providers, drug companies, etc) of the biomedical model of mental illness claim that explaining mental illness as a “brain disease” that is out of the patient’s control will reduce the stigma that surrounds people with mental illness.  By medicalizing so-called mental illnesses and,  “Once people believed that the onset of mental illnesses did not spring from supernatural forces, character flaws, semen loss or some other prescientific notion, the sufferer would be protected from blame and stigma.” (NY Times, January 8, 2010).

     However, what I really found interesting was Professor Sheila Mehta’s study which found this logic to be more assailable than proponents of the mental-illness-as-brain-disease may want to believe. In her cleverly designed study, she found that people who claimed their mental illness to be a disease rooted in biology and genetics were more stigmatized and judged more harshly than people who provided a psychosocial/cultural explanation for their mental illness (to read more about Mehta’s study, see article). And so it seems that the biomedical frame of reference may not be beneficial to everyone with a mental illness.  Other studies, conducted outside of the lab, claim the same results.  So while we accept and promote this biomedical model of mental health within our own Western society, we must understand not everyone in the world views the brain and mental health in the same way we do.          



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