Tag Archives: culture

mental health and mental illness in different cultures

the last few days, i have been thinking repeatedly about the ideas fellow vancouver blogger karen fung has brought up in her post on march 9. she muses about three topics, all of which fascinating. the one about mental health issues with immigrant populations is particularly intriguing, perhaps because for the past year, i’ve mostly worked with immigrants, and also because ethnic diversity is something very close to our hearts at the canadian mental health association.

karen says

as i have become more aware of my interaction with others and of my personal power in my relationships, i’ve realized how important language of empowerment is – and in some cases, even just language more broadly. one interest that i have (that i’m not sure i’ll ever be able to meaningfully pursue) is exploring mental health issues with immigrant populations …

what is the status of mental health stigma more generally in non-english media, and how are efforts at pushing that envelope? this is entirely out of self-interest; however, with populations around the world being more mobile and cultures more in flux, my read is that the ways of dealing with mental health issues the way my grandparents did – through self-medication, secret lives or behind closed doors – seems less and less viable all the time …

on a more specific, linguistic level, i’ve found english to be amazingly malleable in making words match the concepts ” people change and adapt phrases all the time to reflect, however artificially, a higher level of thinking that is non-judgmental, inclusive and accepting. but i can imagine that with other languages (say, the one i have most personal experience with, cantonese) this willingness to shift things might not exist the same way.

these are intriguing ideas. one thing that this makes me think of is that in german, my mother tongue, the concept/words “mental health” are not nearly as much in use as the concept/words “mental illness”. for example, if i search the english speaking google.com for the terms “mental health”, “mental illness” and “depression”, i get a close to 1:1:1 ratio. in google.de, on the other hand, the word “geistesgesundheit” (mental health), even when i add the related term “geistliche gesundheit”, relates to “geisteskrankheit” (mental illness) and depression in a ratio of 1:20:130.  mindboggling!

just to spin this a bit further – it seems to me that german has a similar malleability at the semantic (meaning) level but not on the sociolinguistic level. that is, the language structure is very capable – maybe even more so than english – of being bent this way and that to reflect many shades of meaning but on the level of actual language use, that just does not happen as much as in english.  similarly, the concept of political correctness, which is born from the desire to make language more reflective of societal changes, is not nearly as significant in german as it is in english.

what does it mean, then, when a person struggling with mental health issues lives in a country where mental illness is a much more frequently used term than mental health

i’ll assume that the situation in chinese speaking countries (china, hong kong, taiwan, singapore, parts of vietnam, malaysia, philippines, etc.) is similar to the situation in germany. one of my friends from mainlaind china agrees with me.  but that’s just two opinions – correct us if we’re wrong!

and what does it mean for a person from one of those countries when they move to a place like canada, the US or australia and encounter a totally new approach to mental illness? is it freeing, confusing, stunning?

are we a cult?

woman with car, a consumerist pose“to me, most of the current world civilization is a cult.” this is what my blogging friend alex said recently in a comment on one of my posts on cults.

is our civilization a cult? it’s an interesting question so let’s see what answers we can find. perhaps one way to start is to look for definitions of the term “cult”. the counselling department at caltech university offers this:

below are indicators that are found, to varied degrees and numbers, in all groups that are considered cults. to the basic question of ‘what is a cult?’, maybe the best answer is simply, a group in which there are many of these indicators:

extreme promises – e.g. unconditional, eternal love; financial security; complete certainty about life; answers to all questions

restricted freedoms – because these groups want control, they need to limit their members’ basic freedoms. this includes restricting physical mobility; forbidding doubts or questions; removing the right to choose whom to spend time with, and when; prohibiting the exploration of other ways of thinking and living.

assumptions of power – often restrictions of freedom can also become active abuses of power. the group leader, or others designated to have power, may require members to perform tasks, acquire money, perform rituals, and to provide sexual services. and rather than use outright authority, cult leaders will present these demands or requirements as “opportunities” offered to those in special favor.

a central leader – virtually all cults are headed by a single person (sometimes a couple or triad) who either claims special knowledge and status or who claims special access to it (contact with superhuman intelligence). a particular indicator of a cult is being told that this person knows what is best for you, regardless of your opinion or that of others you trust.

deception and totalitarian views are other components of cults. we may notice that what is told to “recruits” and “outsiders” is different than what is professed within the group. this sort of lie can be as basic as soliciting money for the group under false pretenses. also, “black or white” or “we and they” thinking is common.

alex referred to “most of the current world civilization”; i’d like to draw the circle just a tad smaller; how about the consumerist world as it is presented by mass media to the english-speaking western world. i’m talking about the images and narratives found in mainstream TV and magazines and their relatives on the internet. the world that a fashionably dressed, well worked-out, perfumed, sexy woman lives in, sitting in a car, ipod in her ears, on the way to stop by burger king for a quick big mac after a week’s work at IBM, later to meet with her buddies at a bar well-stocked with heineken and tequila. not an unfamiliar image, right?

extreme promises? you bet. we are all promised that we can either be or have that woman (let’s call her barb), complete with accessories.

restricted freedoms? that’s a tricky one. no-one forces me to wear the types of clothes barb wears, or forces alex to buy her a beer at the bar. in fact, freedom is one of the products that’s being sold here (in the image above, barb’s hair is probably blowing in the wind: clear evidence of freedom!) it’s just that – weeelll, if you want to hang out with that crowd and you don’t wear the right clothes or drive the right car, maybe you won’t get that many invitations to the next party. restriction by exclusion.

assumptions of power? our politicians and CEO’s certainly do require us to perform tasks (go to war), acquire money and perform rituals (e.g. spend the recently acquired money on ridiculously expensive weddings).

a central leader? that’s something that is absent from our culture. however, what we do have is an almost impenetrable web of power mongers and bureaucracies. they do NOT tell us what’s best for us – but they often act like it.

deception and totalitarian views? again, these words are harsh, and i would be crazy to say that we westerners live in totalitarian regimes. at the same time, deception is so much part of our system that we are as used to it as we are to violence on TV and video games. politicians, we say, “of course they lie to us!” TV and news? “of course it’s all made up!”

is our culture a cult? what do you think?

(image by fernando meyer)

my view of human nature

i just stumbled across my term paper of my very first counselling class, 17 years ago. here is what i wrote about my view of human nature. i’m sure i could nip and tuck here and there, and would probably use a slightly different writing style – but generally, most of what i said still holds true.

i believe that as human beings, we are good, free, and interconnected, both among our specie and with other life forms. i also believe each and every one of us is unique and has his or her special place in this world, and that every living being, without exception, deserves respect and acceptance.

humans are those animals living in a culture that revolves around using its most distinguished characteristic – intelligence – to invent and develop tools and processes that make life easier.

beliefs and values, such as mine about the goodness of human nature, are tools, as well – tools that help us understand the meaning and purpose of life.

my life experience and my beliefs are interacting constantly, reinforcing each other. i try to take a positive attitude towards my fellow human beings and assume that they reciprocate. the result is a generally friendly atmosphere in my interactions.

i often find that people who sometimes behave in a less acceptable way towards others behave more favourably towards me because that is what i expect from them. i rather accept the risk of being taken for a ride – which of course happens once in a while – than to live in constant suspicion.

other people see life differently, have different tools. what matters is that they do have tools, recognize and use them as such, and that they feel they are the crafters of their lives, not circumstances or their tools. this is a basic premise.

why is it so difficult to recognize that we are masters of our lives? of course, this is closely related to the very question of the purpose and meaning of life, an issue i cannot deal with in this essay.

a more immediate circumstance preventing us from realizing mastery of our lives is the paradox that although intrinsically we are free, in fact we are also limited. this can be so overwhelming that we may lose sight of our perspective of essential freedom.

limitations are genetic, social, cultural, racial – the list goes on. also, severe restrictions are placed upon us through childhood experiences. if, as an adult, we do not consciously evaluate and, where necessary, change our decisions based upon them, they will be our most consequential limitations.

opposite our limitations lie our potentials. i hold that our options outnumber our restrictions, and that the sheer number of anyone’s potentials is so large that he will never be able to exhaust them.

furthermore, we have this wonderful tool called perception which helps us to bend and shape our limitations. we can try to overlook them, for example, or turn them into advantages or at least neutral conditions.

how we perceive and how we deal with the results of our perceptions, depends on our individual character. although i personally work from a “feeling/thinking” mode and at times have difficulty comprehending that anyone wouldn’t do the same, i have had many experiences that forced me to realize that others often see and live in the world differently.

(this post was mentioned – well, kinda –  in the gonzo papers blog bash

cultural aspects of mental health

today you can find me over at GNIF brain blogger. october 10 was world mental health day. it focused on cultural aspects of mental health. you’ll find tidbits about the mental health among the black and latino GLBT community; mental health in india, including an interesting link to the diary of a mother whose daughter has been diagnosed with schizophrenia; reflections on suicide statistics the world over, from finland to lithuania to the UK; and first nations and mental health.