Illustration: Jaclyn McRae-Sadik.
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Culture plays a big part in determining “abnormal” behaviour

As technology continues to make the world a smaller  place, psychologists have noticed that some mental illnesses are diagnosed differently from culture to culture. This means that depression in Canada may look fundamentally different in places like China or Nigeria.

This makes sense because the symptoms of various mental illnesses are based on irregular or abnormal behaviours—which can be very subjective, depending on the country you’re living in.

An example of this social phenomenon in action is “kayak angst,” a condition experienced by seal hunters in Greenland. While these individuals are out hunting on the open sea they sometimes experience severe panic, a loss of direction, and a desire to be back on land. In other countries like Canada, this condition is a lot closer to what we would define as a panic disorder.

However, researchers have also observed conditions that seem to be categorized as different mental illnesses outside of the Western world. In fact, the American Psychiatric Society first published a list  of these culture-bound conditions in 1994 that comprises of 25 such illnesses.

This list includes “ghost sickness,” which is observed amongst the Navajo people in the United States. This illness is experienced by people preoccupied with the deceased, and it involves symptoms such as a loss of appetite, feelings of suffocation, and nightmares.

If you live in South Korea you might have been impacted by “Hwabyeong,” an illness resulting from experiencing unfair treatment. This condition causes symptoms including angry outbursts, depression, insomnia, heart palpitations, and fatigue.

Over in “the land of the rising sun” an estimated 541,000 Japanese citizens have been identified as “hikikomori,” individuals who isolate themselves and refuse to leave home for a period of over six months. There are even some reported cases where people have not left their home for twenty years.

Of course, the jury’s still out on whether these conditions are distinct mental illnesses or a culturally influenced variant of pre-existing symptoms.

However, some research  suggests that certain mental illnesses are pretty universal. In 1976, Harvard anthropologist Jane Murphy observed two societies that had had little contact with the West: a group of Inuits living near the Bering Strait, and the Yorubas living in Nigeria. She found that these two populations experienced mental illnesses with symptoms consistent with what the West would call schizophrenia and psychopathy. These types of coincidences could point to genetic and biological causes of mental illness.

But this doesn’t mean that the culturally specific conditions listed above are lacking in unique factors. For example, Dr. Henry Grubb, a psychologist from the University of Maryland, is convinced that people like the hikikomori exhibit signs that are a Japanese version of anxiety disorders. This has lead researchers to question whether the physiological processes in the human brain are the same or different than illnesses found in the West.

Although it seems like an exercise in frustration, determining whether or not culture-bound conditions are distinct mental illnesses can have a serious impact on international medical treatment. After all, misdiagnosis and prescribing the wrong medication or counselling can make a person’s situation a lot worse.

More research into these culture-bound mental illnesses needs to happen, since it will allow us to gain more knowledge of how to treat our own conditions and how to transfer these techniques to the world at large.