Unit 9: Introduction

Culture and Mental Illness

Center for Cross-Cultural Research
Western Washington University

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It is safe to say that what we do know and understand about mental illness is greatly  exceeded by  what we DO NOT know and understand.  However, we can be certain that in different cultures the symptoms of mental illness are not always interpreted as illness or dysfunction.  For example, in some cultures, those who hear voices and appear to have many persons inhabiting and functioning within their body are regarded as extremely gifted or "god-like" in their unusualness.  An age-old question concerns the universality or cultural specificity of conditions we tend to call "mental".  Clinical psychologists are constantly challenged by these issues, all of which affect both diagnosis and treatment.

Historically, it was thought that physical conditions, imbalances, or impurities in the blood system contributed to strange and uncontrollable changes in behavior or mood. Most people have heard of the four "humors" of the early Greeks: Blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile, and how variations in physical volume were held accountable for a person's "abnormality" or personality.  In medieval times applying leeches or blood-letting was seen as cures for anxiety or depression.  Other cultures used strong potions, hot baths, and drink to change moods and behaviors, while others sought the healing prayers and songs of shamen as sources of emotional wellness.  While various cultures have unique treatments for mental illness, no culture claims to have all the answers. The chapters in this unit address some of the perspectives and treatments used in cultures around the world. Future chapters will be helpful in sorting out the various issues in this large area of research.

Unit 9. To view a chapter, click on the title.
Chapter Author Title
- Editors Unit 9 Introduction
1 David Lackland Sam and Virginia Moreira The Mutual Embeddedness of Culture and Mental Illness
2 Junko Tanaka-Matsumi and Robert Chang What Questions Arise when Studying Cultural Universals in Depression? Lessons from Abnormal Psychology Textbooks
3 Andrew G. Ryder, Jian Yang, and Steven H. Heine Somatization vs. Psychologization of Emotional Distress: A Paradigmatic Example for Cultural Psychopathology
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