Chintada: The dangers of Americanizing mental health

Latavya Chintada, Staff Columnist

There is no doubt there is great stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness, especially in Western society. Such stigma makes it hard for those who suffer from mental illness to seek support or even openly discuss their problems. It is important to talk about why such stigma exists. While it is hard to pinpoint an exact cause for such a complex issue, it can be directed towards how Western society perceives the sense of self. Because Western society puts high value on self-control and self-maintenance, the volatility and lack of self-restraint seen in many mental illnesses can lead to stigma and ostracization. 

There have been many efforts to reduce mental health stigma, ranging from raising awareness of mental illness through informational sessions to even changing the way we perceive mental illness. One of the most common methods of reducing stigma is treating mental illness as a biological or genetic disorder instead of a disorder resulting from a mix of biological abnormalities and socio-environmental factors. While this may seem like it would work in theory, mental illness is not just a biological disorder. There are more complex interactions at play. 

Sheila Mehta, a psychology professor at Auburn University at Montgomery, investigated if such a “biological” or “disease” narrative actually reduced stigma, and the results were unexpected. Although this narrative’s intended effect was to reduce stigma, it actually did the opposite. When the illness of an individual was presented as the result of childhood trauma/events, the participants carried less stigma towards them compared to when their illness was presented as a biochemical disease. 

This phenomenon can be attributed to the fact that there are three types of stigma: stigma from mental illness, physical deformity and race/ethnicity. While trying to eliminate the mental illness stigma, this biological narrative provoked additional stigma resulting from physical deformity. This may mean that human brains process biological diseases as much more severe than diseases from “traumatic life events.” Our brains may be wired to automatically have a negative reaction towards those who are physically ill as an innate defense mechanism, providing an explanation for why society ostracizes those who we perceive as physically ill. 

While this stigma is very much present in most Western cultures, some indigenous cultures do not stigmatize mental illness or discriminate against those who have them. Additionally, many non-Western cultures do not ostracize mentally ill members of society and instead include them in social groups. By including them in regular social interaction, taking care of them and letting these individuals relax, these cultures actually help mentally ill individuals achieve a type of inner peace. 

As a result, these societies view mental illness as a type of unlucky trauma inflicted upon an individual rather than a means of identification. In some Southeast Asian cultures, men have been known to experience episodes of extreme rage followed by amnesia—a phenomenon named “amok.” This indicates that mental health presents itself in different forms across all types of culture and depends largely on social and environmental factors. 

In a 2010 essay, Ethan Watters describes how the “Americanization” of mental health has been detrimental to the other nations influenced by it. It is an ethnocentric approach to mental health, disregarding the fact that mental illness presents itself in different ways to different people in different places.

Western culture has been pushing “mental health literacy” onto other cultures for several decades now, forcing them to adopt Western terms for illnesses and a biological narrative of mental health. Because of this, cultures where there was previously no stigma towards mental illness may start to adopt a stigma. This is not only detrimental to societal progress, but it also cripples an individual’s path to recovery.

While Western biomedical treatments for mental illness have definite benefits, it is also important to consider mental illness as a holistic disorder. Such illnesses result from complex interactions between biological, environmental and societal factors, and present themselves uniquely across individuals. An Americanized approach, on the other hand, eschews these individual experiences in favor of a “Western” presentation of mental illness and disregards the approaches of other cultures for treatment.

So, instead of trying to force everyone to adopt a uniform perspective, it is best to embrace diversity and focus on the ultimate goal of eliminating the stigma surrounding mental illnesses.