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Mental Illness Is a Global Phenomenon

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In his book, American Mania, Dr. Peter Whybrow discussed the prevalence of mental illness in the U.S., but he pointed out this may be a uniquely manic moment in the history of the planet. That is because our biology is at war with our culture. As homo sapiens, we are not programmed to eat junk food 24/7, to be surfeited by video games, Blackberries, cell phones and artificial light, and to fly through time zones in a fraction of the time it used to take us to sail by boat.

It is no wonder that our minds (and bodies) are suffering.

In recent days, both the L.A. Times and New York Times have published thoughtful articles about mental illness outside of the U.S., demonstrating that it is one of the leading health issues of our time. In some sense, it always has been.

In a Jan. 30 piece in the L.A. Times, Jeffrey Fleishman, whose journals about life in Egypt are always jewels of the craft, wrote a front-page column on the recent suicide of an Egyptian man, Samir Asar, who was struggling to make a living and hold together his marriage. Fleishman then noted that there has been a significant rise in suicide rates in Egypt. The number of reported suicides in Egypt rose from 1,160 in 2005 to 4,200 in 2008.

Part of the problem in Egypt, as is the case throughout the world, is the global recession, which has forced skilled laborers in the Nile Delta like Asar to go abroad to make enough of a living to support their families. But another part of the problem is the stress much of the world faces in this fast-paced, new millennial era.

That stress can certainly be found in Iraq, where many of the citizens experience post-traumatic stress disorder. On Jan. 31, the New York Times ran a story about how Iraq is modernizing its mental health system, using a multidisciplinary approach that includes therapy (not just medication) and expands patient's rights.

The article also mentioned that certain American therapeutic methods, such as therapy dogs, "proved unsuitable for Iraq," because Iraqis view dogs as being unclean.

Three weeks earlier, the New York Times Magazine featured a story titled "The Americanization of Mental Illness." The piece cited the work of researchers who have argued that mental illnesses "are inevitably sparked and shaped by the ethos of particular times and places." For instance, some men in Southeast Asia suffer from "amok, an episode of murderous rage followed by amnesia"; others suffer from koro, a condition in which men fear that their genitals will disappear inside their bodies.

These diagnoses are not common in the Western world; they are not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But, as the article pointed out, "a handful of mental-health disorders - depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anorexia among them - now appear to be spreading across cultures with the speed of contagious diseases."

Mental illness is not new.

It was with us in the Fertile Crescent, when Abraham heard a voice telling him to leave Ur and take his family to the promised land.

It was with us when we were hunters and gatherers in the Horn of Africa.

Our ancestors never had problems with diabetes, obesity, or heart attacks. They ran for hours chasing after their prey and had lean, healthy bodies. But some of them thought they heard voices in the wind; others had visions; still others experienced deep melancholy. Many of these people were viewed as shamans, people who could speak to the gods.

Whether the mentally ill are divine or simply troubled, they will always be with us.

Disorders may take different forms in certain cultures, but I am heartened that the world is beginning to recognize the pervasiveness of mental illness. That's nice after 50,000 to 100,000 years as a species.