Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Running Amok

by Stacey Prince

A disturbing article appeared in the New York Times in January. Entitled The Americanization of Mental Illness and written by Ethan Watters, the article outlines an aspect of American-led globalization that is especially relevant to TJP. He explains how mental illness is much more culturally influenced than the scientific community would like to admit, and how, in recent years, the American version of mental illness has begun to impact not only diagnostic practices but actual symptom expression in cultures where formerly indigenous forms of illness and healing existed.

Watters begins by citing research amassed by anthropologists and cross-cultural psychiatrists indicating that mental illnesses have not been consistent over time and place but instead are very much influenced by the culture in which they occur. A classic example that many of us have heard of is amok, a phenomenon seen in which individuals suffer "murderous rage followed by amnesia". This condition is seen solely in cultures in Southeast Asia. Similarly, hysterical leg paralysis, a form of what would now be called conversion disorder, existed among thousands of women in the late 19th century, and (the author notes) seemed to be a poignant expression of the restrictions set on women's social roles during that time.

To read entire article click here.


  1. The draft of the DSM-5 is now available for viewing and comment. The comment period goes throughApril 20, 2010. You can view the draft of the diagnoses at this web address: - there are some improvements - and there are some steps backward!

  2. Related (lightly!) to this is an article by Malcolm Gladwell in the latest New Yorker Magazine, in which he looks at the behavior of alcoholics in different cultures. He found that there isn't a universal way alcoholics drink or behave when drinking, but distinct behaviors that work within (and are generally tolerated by) each culture.