Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Western Culture of Science and its Synthesis of Mental Health and Illness

molivares's picture

The face of mental health in the Western world has certainly changed throughout time and history, revealing its fluid nature.  Mental illnesses have continuously been defined, redefined, disregarded, categorized, recategorized, and rated according to the perceived needs of a community of patients.  In the New York Times article The Americanization of Mental Illness, Watters explains that changes in the expression of mental health and illness across global cultures are due to, “…those who minister to the mentally ill – doctors or shamans or priests – inadvertently help to select which symptoms will be recognized as legitimate.”   The key word here in ‘inadvertently.’ What does Watters mean when he says that physicians inadvertently shape the expression of mental illness?

Throughout the entire article, Watters attempts to reveal to an audience (that he suspects is unwary) that the growing classification and definition mental illness across the globe is due to a sort of Western medical imperialism. He sites physicians, researchers, pharmaceutical drug companies, and other mental-health professionals as the origin of this Western medical imperialism as if they are the ones to blame for the Americanization of mental illness since they are the ones who diagnose, research, provide money for research, and categorize mental health issues in forms such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). But beyond this, what Watters does not address is the broader reason why physicians, researchers, drug companies and other mental-health professionals come to adopt their form of thinking.

Current scientists, researchers, and physicians look at the brain and the mind as though they are one. To fix an abnormal brain will fix an abnormal mind. To fix an abnormal brain will restore good mental health.  But is that so the case? The brain itself is a physical material. The mind is not. “That the mind lives in the brain, the brain lives in the body and the body lives in a community is the key to understanding mental health in all cultural contexts,” Dr. Karen Hopenwasser of Weill Cornell Medical College so articulately puts. Indeed the mind is encased in the anatomical brain, but how has this positioning shaped our understanding of mental health? The label “mental health” itself, this idea that our mental-state-of-being should be medically evaluated like any other part of our anatomical body, conforms to our obsession with understanding ours physical selves in terms of mechanism and function. Because the mind has been localized and associated with the structure and function of the brain, it automatically becomes territory of biomedical understanding.  

The concepts of mental health and mental illnesses have been incorporated into the Western biomedical system of understanding, and medical doctors systematically and categorically evaluated it just like chicken pox or polio.  But mental illness is unlike chicken pox virus in that there is no biological marker that is cross-culturally and universally uniform across all its patients.  So how can we attempt to use this biomedical framework, a framework that relies on rigid lines of biological causation and definition, to evaluate mental health and illness, an area in which lines of definition are so blurred?

We try and adopt this biomedical model because that is what we know to do. We try to fit that square peg into that circular hole. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it does not. Our conception of mental health and illness is based on our cultural ideology that science attempts to establish the truth. We like to think that science is objective and that this is the main characteristic that will allow for the discovery of the “truth” behind life. And once we discover this truth, since it is scientifically based on what composes us as humans, this established scientific truth can be held universally across the human race.  We view science as the vehicle to move beyond culture, which will be the breakthrough in cultural misunderstandings of illnesses of the mind. The progressive attitude that our culture of science takes leads us to believe that one day we will have the “true” explanation for mental illness in terms of biochemical imbalances or abnormalities.

But science is unable to establish the “truth.” Is not objective nor will it ever be the vehicle to move beyond culture. What is furthermore mind-boggling is that we are so caught up in the race to make scientific progress that we are unable to see that science itself is mind-created entity that is a product of our culture. Just as we may attribute demon possession and spiritual beings as characteristics of other cultures, science is a characteristic of our Western culture. How are thee invisible forces and mechanisms that we “see” acting on the biology and chemistry of the brain different from invisible spirits that take possession over people? Just because we have constructed the technology to demonstrate our scientific observations, does that make our scientific cultural understanding more legitimate?

I by no means am disregarding the legitimacy of science— I only question it because we seem to be caught up in its perceived ability to establishment of truth. I am not sure what this implies in terms of effectively dealing with mental health and illness across cultures, but I think that it is important to be conscious and aware of how our own ideologies shape our attempt at effectively dealing with mental health and illness.


Carey, Benedict.  “Revising Book on Disorders of the Mind.” New York Times. 10 Feb.
2010. Web. 22 Feb. 2010. < 10psych.html?ref=research>.

Grobstein, Paul. "19 January." Bio 202, Spring 2010 - Notes. Serendip Web Site, 18 Jan.
2010. Web. 19 Jan. 2010. </exchange/courses/ bio202/s10/notes>.

"Models of Mental Health: A Critique and Prospectus." Models of Mental Health: A
Critique and Prospectus. Ed. Paul Groubstein and Laura Cyckowski. Serendip Web Site, 2006. Web. 20 Feb. 2010. </exchange/ mentalhealth/mentalhealthmodels1>.

Watters, Ethan. "The Americanization of Mental Illness." New York Times. 10 Jan.
2010. Web. 23 Jan. 2010. < 10psyche-t.html>.



Paul Grobstein's picture

Brain and mental health

"I think that it is important to be conscious and aware of how our own ideologies shape our attempt at effectively dealing with mental health and illness."

I agree.   And also agree that "mental illness is unlike chicken pox virus in that there is no biological marker that is cross-culturally and universally uniform across all its patients."  So, how can we get it "less wrong"?  In what ways might being "aware of our own ideologies" suggest new directions for thinking about mental health?  Can neurobiology help?