I heard an interview on the radio with the author this morning. I’d seen the book go by at work and thought it looked interesting. Hearing Ethan Watters talk about his book and what he was coming across while writing it, I knew it’d be right up my alley.
Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche takes readers into other cultures to see what effect the American thought process is having on their societies and their ways of thinking about stress, tragedy and mental illness.
He brought up the tsunami that ransacked Sri Lanka back in 2004 and the outpouring of aid from the States. It was useful in every way except in cases where therapists (including Scientologists – sound familiar?) went to “help” without having any lick of a clue about how that social structure was organized. It really shouldn’t be a big surprise, but it turns out there is a marked different in how each culture has evolved to deal with trauma.
The western way apparently is to internalize it, think in egotistical terms about chemical changes in the brain and needing time alone to deal with the post traumatic stress disorder, or talk about what happened a lot, and soon, too, in order to wash the fresh wound clean or what have you (and there is growing evidence this process has the opposite effect as is intended – people who do this often take longer to get over what happened).
For Sri Lankans, this is nearly opposite of the way they’re used to coping. When asked, they’ll say they feel disconnected from their social networks and that’s the glue that holds their villages together. Watter notes the fact that in many villages a family whose child was murdered might be living beside the family whose member did the killing. They’ve actually got strict rules within these villages, I guess, regarding how these people talk to each other and one of the ways they can’t is by directly mentioning what happened. They can talk around it, circumspect it, but aren’t supposed to get into any conversation that might start a cycle of revenge — which is their worst fear, frankly. That’s what rips families and societies apart. Bring in the western therapists who believe the only healing is with direct truth telling at all times, and what happens? Nothing good.
He also brought up the growing problem of anorexia in Hong Kong. Prior to 1994 or so, there were very few girls who’d been diagnosed with it anywhere in China, and none of them had the same “symptoms” as westerns girls do in terms of fat phobia or distorted body image where they really think they look fat when they are quite skeletal. It was only after a 14 year old girl died suddenly in the street that anorexia became news there.
Making it newsworthy is what may have gotten the ball rolling. Eastern reporters looked to the west for clues on how to alert their audience to this disease and what the west was doing to treat its symptoms. But by naming the disease and stating the list of things to watch for, people started watching for them. I’m going to quote Mind of Modernity who is quoting from the book:
Watters turns to medical historian Edward Shorter to explain why a cultural awareness of a new disease model actually shapes the experience of individual sufferers:
People at a given moment in history in need of expressing their psychological suffering have a limited number of symptoms to choose from – a “symptom pool” as he calls it. When someone unconsciously latches onto a behavior in the symptom pool, he or she is doing so for a very specific reason: the person is taking troubling emotions and internal conflicts that are often indistinct or frustratingly beyond expression and distilling them into a symptom or behavior that is a culturally recognized signal of suffering.
The trouble with this, of course, is that every culture tends to pool symptoms differently. Like the Sri Lanka thing where community disconnection is a far bigger symptom of a problem. It’s hardly considered a symptom in the States because it seems like everyone’s living the life of a
disconnected independent individual already and maybe nobody really questions the mental impact of so many of us living with so few ties to the community we’re living in this year.
For the young people of Hong Kong, with all the increased western cultural crap coming their way, is it any wonder they’re getting stressed out enough to start developing western mental illnesses on top of that?
This “stress from rapid social changes” fits Liah Greenfeld’s definition of anomie. As Hong Kong experienced these modern changes, traditional sources of identity were weakening, resulting in a condition of cultural insufficiency. Greenfeld’s work on mental illness suggests that problems with identity formation are caused by this chronic condition of cultural insufficiency, (anomie), which characterizes modern culture.
Yeah, so this’ll be a fascinating read. Hopefully I don’t have to wait too long to get it.
Also on the topic of books – I’ll finish the one I’m reading today hopefully and then write up a thing about it. I also have a book here that winds up related to this Crazy Like Us one, Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker, which is all about the rise of mental illness – or at least the rise of calling things mental illnesses in order to sell people drugs. Watter said something like one in four teens have a mental illness. How the hell could that be true? What if it’s just the fact that these definitions and “symptom pools” for mental illness wind up so fucking broad that every little quirk of personality could fit five drug “treatable” problems?