I came across an interesting article on The Morning News site. It originally appeared in the Boston Globe and was about the DSM--The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness--it's like the Bible for the psychiatric field, a compendium of the more than 350 ways they have determined that our minds can fail us. The article focuses on a little compendium of illnesses catalogued in the back of the book, about 25 little-known illnesses. They are called 'culture-bound' illnesses and what is described are a number of conditions that up until now have been regarded as mental issues that are cultural--i.e. culture-bound. The article names a couple--susto — a distinctly Latin American fear that one’s soul has panicked and left one’s body. Or pibloktoq, also known as “arctic hysteria,” in which Greenlandic Inuit strip off all their clothes and run out into the subzero Arctic tundra. The argument that is laid out in the lengthy piece revolves around the desire, amongst some in the profession, to abandon what is considered by them to be a relic from a colonial age. At its heart the question is about whether or not it is time to view the West as a culture, as well as to consider how much culture plays in the manifestation of mental illness.
I have read many times that melancholy is a particularly British malady--something backed up by a number of books, and writings since the 17th century when a sort of cult of melancholy arose in Britain. What is also highlighted in the article is the fact that the 1994 edition of the DSM contains no British or American culture-bound illnesses--i.e. other cultures may or may not have them, but we don't. But off the top of my head I can think of any number of conditions--Chronic Fatigue for instance--that you would be hard-pressed to find in many other less developed environments and societies. I think culture influences us profoundly and deeply much more than we might care to realize. it is another argument I suppose between universality and particularity. Anyway, the article is well worth a read and I would be interested in responses to it.