07/31/2014 10:51 am ET

Around The World, Schizophrenia Isn't Always Seen As Debilitating

In the course of her most recent research project, Stanford professor Tanya Luhrmann came across a Hindu woman who claimed to hear messages from God. She told Luhrmann that she wasn't only hearing words, but also feeling vibrations.

Had the woman been born in the West, Luhrmann said, she likely would have been diagnosed with schizophrenia. But instead, she was born in the Indian city of Chennai, where she was never questioned by her husband or father about the sounds that she alone could hear.

This difference in the perception of schizophrenia is the focus of Luhrmann's most recent study, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. Luhrmann analyzed how the cultural perception of the mental condition affects patient outcomes in three different communities around the world: Accra, Ghana; Chennai, India; and San Mateo, California. She studied 12 women and eight men in Accra, nine women and 11 men in Chennai, and 10 women and 10 men in San Mateo.

Luhrmann, who has been studying schizophrenia since the early '90s, concluded that the West treats schizophrenia as a debilitating disorder and dismisses people's hallucinations as "symptoms." However, in places like India and Ghana, the hallucinations and voices are not so easily discounted, she said. More than half of her research subjects in India, for example, described the voices they heard as those of family members or ancestors. As a result, Luhrmann said, the voices were perceived as guides instead of threats.

The major difference was that “the Chennai (India) and Accra (Ghana) participants were more comfortable interpreting their voices as relationships and not as the sign of a violated mind," she wrote in the study. "Participants in the USA were more likely to use diagnostic labels and to report violent commands than those in India and Ghana.”

Luhrmann hypothesized that if patients diagnosed with schizophrenia can change the way they perceive the voices in their head, they might be able to better control the disorder.

"In my experience, those who are taught to interpret their voices as guides tend to have the most success in handling the disease," she told The Huffington Post. "It’s a new, radical way of thinking about how to handle psychiatric voices that suggests if you identify them, interact with them, name them and come to know them, they may behave better, they may be more generous and less harsh."

Luhrmann acknowledged that this approach would not work for everyone, but said it has important implications for treatment.

"Harsh, violent voices so common in the West may not be an inevitable feature of schizophrenia," she said.