The diagnosis and treatment of mental illness across cultures.

Through our narrow western lens that is fuelled by Web MD and Wikipedia, society views schizophrenics as ‘sick,’ depressed individuals as ‘chemically imbalanced,’ and drug addicts as ‘criminals.’ People who struggle with mental health are often stereotyped as crazy, weak, and difficult in our medicalized culture. Although psychology’s infamous guidebook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), is jam-packed with helpful information, its lack of cultural consideration is detrimental in understanding and treating mental illness across cultures.

It is surprising to learn that not all cultures view schizophrenia as a negative. Hearing strange voices? No problem! You’re just communicating with the spirit world to help guide your community. Seeing things that aren’t really there? Awesome! Those are likely signs from a mystical God that can teach you to heal your family. While this is a satirical oversimplification, the point becomes apparent that schizophrenia is viewed in a drastically different light in the west compared to other cultures. Unfortunately for us, viewing this disorder in a negative lens can actually worsen the results. For example, a study found that certain ethnic groups reported lower schizophrenic symptoms. The authors of this research suggest that culture should be more integrated into the current biopsychosocial models of schizophrenia. Perhaps viewing those with schizophrenia as genuinely special, instead of sick, can improve the outcome for all.

In regard to depression, the advancement of western neuroscience has been astronomically beneficial. However, treatment and diagnosis in non-western cultures remains a challenge. In the Handbook of Depression’s third edition, there is a chapter that questions the variance in defined depressive symptoms between cultures. Given the complexity of depression, the authors argue that it is “not only a neurological phenomenon, but also a psychological and cultural one, and therefore cannot be explained without referencing all of these levels.” The “chemical imbalance” that can be treated by drugs is only one aspect of depression. With our current neurological revolution in the west, the importance of culture cannot be lost.

Thanks to the hard work of many researchers, the treatment of drug addicts has shifted from an issue of discipline to one rooted in health. Substance use disorders affect approximately 21.6 percent of Canadians at some point in their lifetime according to Statistics Canada. According to an article published in the Psychiatric Times, culture plays a monumental role in the etiology of addiction. Through the cultural formation of expectations for potential drug and alcohol-related problems, people can be unfairly disadvantaged. For example, Native American elders believe that many substance abuse problems are related to the genocide of their culture. Thanks to Canada’s regretful contribution to residential schools and ruthless colonialization, the drug addicts of today are stigmatized to be criminals and delinquents. By looking at addiction through a cultural lens, a deeper understanding of substance use disorders can help to create more informed treatment options.

From schizophrenia to depression to addiction, society is filled with a cultural mosaic of varying mental differences. While the West has a lot to offer with the advancement of medicine and technology, the diversity of culture across the globe is a central aspect to helping those in need. Learning how other cultures treat certain disorders and value different abilities can help lead the way to a healthier and happier world.