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Does Culture Influence the Meaning of Mental Illness?

Does Culture Influence the Meaning of Mental Illness?

Most of the research reviewed until now was conducted using translated Western instruments and classification systems by investigators who view mental illness from a biomedical perspective. Proponents of cultural idioms of distress perspectives argue that mental illness cannot be separated from the cultural context in which it occurs. The cultural context may shape the meaning and subjective experience of mental illness, which may influence its prognosis. Schizophrenia.Even though schizophrenic symptoms are similar across cultures, evidence suggests that the meaning that cultural and ethnic groups attach to these symptoms may differ. For example, Jenkins asked schizophrenic and depressed Latino and European-Americans who lived in Los Angeles to describe their ‘‘life situations.’’ She found that European-Americans, particularly those with schizophrenia, were more likely to characterize their life situations in terms of mental illness than Latinos. Latinos, on the other hand, particularly those with schizophrenia, were more likely to describe their life situations in terms of ‘‘nervios,’’ or nerves. ‘‘Nervios’’ is a culturally acceptable way of describing emotional distress in Latino cultures that imparts sympathy onto the suffering person.

Thus, because Latino culture may view mental illness more sympathetically, Latinos who suffer from mental illness may be less alienated from their society and therefore, demonstrate better prognoses than their European-American counterparts. Similarly, based on interview data with schizophrenic patients and their families in Sri Lanka, Waxler  found that the social and clinical outcome of Sri Lankan patients 5 years after their f irst hospital admission was better than that of schizophrenic patients in Denmark and Russia. Waxler attributes these findings to differences across the cultures in the meanings of deviance and mental illness. Deviance and mental illness are more culturally accepted in Sri Lanka than in Denmark or Russia. Other studies suggest that individuals with schizophrenia also do better (e.g., are hospitalized less often) in cultures that view the self as dynamic and that afford individuals opportunities to move easily between reality and fantasy. Presumably, these cultures give individuals with schizophrenia a ‘‘way of being’’ that promotes their mental health.

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