Is Our Depression Culture-Bound?

cover_2From Poets & Writers Magazine:

Growing up, I only knew that my grandma had been “sick.” Later I heard more, and learned that she had taken her own life. But it wasn’t until I started researching a book about culture-bound syndromes that I uncovered the fuller version: Late one night, in 1968, my grandma woke up, opened a bottle of barbiturates, swallowed them all, then climbed back into bed. The next morning my grandfather found her body next to his. She was fifty-six years old. They had been married since she was sixteen and he was nineteen.

At the time the doctors said she had a nervous breakdown, or sometimes that she was depressed. But that meant something different to the doctors than it meant to her family. And as I researched my book, it started to become clear that even today it probably means something different to everyone around the world.

Rates of depression vary widely. In Korea or Japan you have a one in fifty chance of having experienced major depression over the past twelve months, while in Brazil your chance is one in ten. Symptoms vary too. According to Handbook of Depression, a textbook on mood disorders, Koreans and Korean Americans experience manifestations that others would never consider related to depression: constipation, abdominal cramps, heartburn, stiff joints, sore muscles, and increased heart rate. In cultures where excitement and happiness are considered normal, people with major depression show low energy and blunted emotional response. In cultures where emotional control is considered the norm, the opposite is true: Intensified emotional responses are a common symptom of depression. The British psychiatrist Christopher Dowrick, author of Beyond Depression: A New Approach to Understanding and Management, has suggested that depression itself should be considered a culture-bound syndrome.

Read the rest here.

Read more about Culture-Bound Syndromes in The Geography of Madness

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