We believe that the United States is the leading edge for the discovery and treatment of mental illness. Instead, a remarkable article in the New York Times, The Americanization of Mental Illness, reveals,
Americans, particularly if they are of a certain leftward-leaning, college-educated type, worry about our country's blunders into other cultures [that's you, HuffPo readers, in case you didn't recognize yourselves]. In some circles, it is easy to make friends with a rousing rant about the McDonald's near Tiananmen Square, the Nike factory in Malaysia or the latest blowback from our political or military interventions abroad. For all our self-recrimination, however, we may have yet to face one of the most remarkable effects of American-led globalization. We have for many years been busily engaged in a grand project of Americanizing the world's understanding of mental health and illness. We may indeed be far along in homogenizing the way the world goes mad. . . .
For more than a generation now, we in the West have aggressively spread our modern knowledge of mental illness around the world. We have done this in the name of science, believing that our approaches reveal the biological basis of psychic suffering and dispel prescientific myths and harmful stigma. There is now good evidence to suggest that in the process of teaching the rest of the world to think like us, we've been exporting our Western "symptom repertoire" as well. That is, we've been changing not only the treatments but also the expression of mental illness in other cultures. Indeed, 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. These symptom clusters are becoming the lingua franca of human suffering, replacing indigenous forms of mental illness.
In other words, the mental illnesses we regard as biological imperatives are cultural creations that we are exporting (the same holds for alcoholism and addiction), to which we then point as proof of our assumptions. Human beings are characterized by their inability to distinguish reality from social reality. That has been bad news previously, what with Christian missionaries among the natives et al. But NEVER has their been a culture so intent on telling people around the world how to think as America. It is precisely because we cloak things in humaneness and science that our cultural imperialism is so insidious - and this cuts deeper than big pharma salesmanship and the never-ending enterprise of creating new psychiatric diseases. In the new instant global media world, we can now spread our neuroses - our psychiatricized conception of ourselves - virally.
Follow Stanton Peele on Twitter: www.twitter.com/speele5