Healing Myself, Healing Others

January 11, 2010

Today’s NY Times Sunday magazine contained a thought-provoking article on the roles of culture and globalization in the understanding and treatment of the mentally ill, “The Americanization of Mental Illness” (Jan 8, 2010). The author, Ethan Watters, argues that Western definitions of illness are changing how other cultures view mental illness and respond to patients, and not necessarily for the better. He appears to say that all descriptions of mental illness must be linked to the culture where the illness appears, and by the end of the article, he even appears to challenge the assumptions of scientific objectivity (or, perhaps the “value” of objectivity) that we attribute to experiments done by neuroscientists.

Many of Watters’ premises are plausible, even worrying. As an example of the latter, Watters describes the rapid rise in the incidence of anorexia in Hong Kong over the last two decades. Taken to its logical conclusion, this might be a situation where ignorance could have been bliss, that is, Hong Kong residents might have experienced lower rates of anorexia if they had been exposed to less information about the Western experience with the disease.

Unfortunately, the article is adapted from a much larger book that Watters has written. This makes the article hop around quite a bit and leaves me with some bits and pieces that seem hard to swallow.

For example, I couldn’t help but wonder whether a lab experiment that is purported to show people stigmatizing the mentally ill more when the illness is supposedly connected to a brain trauma (as opposed to a childhood trauma) couldn’t also be explained in another way. Perhaps the experimental subjects might have believed that a brain trauma (unlike a childhood trauma) could be reversed through electric shock?

Also, the article gives the impression that Watters perhaps dislikes the increased role of neuroscience in the definition of mental illness. Towards the end of the article he writes, its “time to admit that even our most remarkable scientific leaps in understanding the brain haven’t yet created the sorts of cultural stories from which humans take comfort and meaning.” I can only hope that the original book (“Crazy Like Us”) provides some historical information about the appalling way in which Westerners used to treat the mentally ill. Our cultural heritage regarding mental illness, at best, mixed “comfort and meaning” with terrible cruelty and injustice.

Small gripes aside, the article contains a remarkable insight into the American view of “self” when it states, “The ideas we export often have at their heart a particularly American brand of hyperintrospection — a penchant for “psychologizing” daily existence. These ideas remain deeply influenced by the Cartesian split between the mind and the body, the Freudian duality between the conscious and unconscious, as well as the many self-help philosophies and schools of therapy that have encouraged Americans to separate the health of the individual from the health of the group.”

This notion that Americans disconnect the “health of the individual” and the “health of the group” intrigues me, particularly in light of my Zen meditation practice. I took up meditation in order to transform myself. My thinking was simple: the change that I want to see must begin with me. However, countless Buddhist teachers have said, “don’t sit just for yourself”. If Watters is right, sitting only for myself has always been an impossibility.

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