I ran into an article not long ago in The New York Times, The Americanization of Mental Illness by Ethan Watters, based on his forthcoming book, Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, discussing how the American way of mental illness being exported along with other American products such as rock n’ roll, Coca Cola, and anorexia.
The classic case of Western media-induced anorexia happened on the Polynesian island of Fiji, where eating disorders were unknown for 3,000 years until television became available in 1995. A 1999 New York Times article describes what Dr. Ann E. Becker, director of research at the Harvard Eating Disorders Center of Harvard Medical School, found when she investigated shifts in body image and eating practices in Fiji over a three-year period.
Before 1995, Dr. Becker said, there was little talk of dieting in Fiji. ”The idea of calories was very foreign to them.” But in the 1998 survey, 69 percent said that at some time they had been on a diet. In fact, preliminary data suggest more teen-age girls in Fiji diet than their American counterparts.
Study Finds TV Alters Fiji Girls’ View of Body By Erica Goode, May 20, 1999
Oddly enough the idea of viral mental illness set me to thinking about some unusual toys I played with as a child. My father was a psychologist who administered psychological tests for schools, government agencies and mental institutions before he gave that up to go into military and aerospace research.
He had a cupboard full of old psychological tests that he never used, and when I got old enough not to mess them up, he would let me take them out and play with them. I think by then his worldview was that these tests were indeed games, so why shouldn’t I play with them.
It’s been nearly 50 years since I last picked these up but I still remember how beautiful the Rorschach ink blots were. They were large, thick cardboard about six by nine inches and not just black and white, but with almost three-dimensional gray shadings, and colorful red, blue, green orange and pink swirls.
Another test was the TAT or Thematic Apperception Test, again pictures on even larger cards. Each drawing showed a little scene that you were supposed to tell a story about–good training for a novelist, although that was hardly anyone’s plan for me at the time.
The creepiest test was the Szondi test–no, not Zombie test, it was named after Hungarian psychiatrist Lipot Szondi (1893-1986). This test consisted of four sheets of mug shots, 48 pictures of mental patients taken in the late 1800s to early 1900s. As my father explained it, if you got on a bus and there was an empty seat next to each of these people, who would you sit next to?
Szondi lived into the 1980s and I don’t know if he ever changed his diagnostic definitions, but the eight diagnoses the Szondi test used were: homosexual, sadistic, epileptic, hysteric, catatonic, paranoiac, schizophrenic, depressive and manic.
Just that list gives you an idea of how ideas about what constitutes mental illness have changed just in America.
The Watters New York Times article that started my whole trip down memory lane talks about mental illnesses that once were common and now are rarely if ever seen, such as hysterical paralysis. He reports a contagious anorexia phenomenon in Hong Kong, and goes into a fascinating digression on how one culture’s treatment of schizophrenia as spirit possession actually leads to fewer relapses than the Western diagnosis and drug treatment
An internet search away from the Watters article was an equally absorbing commentary by Greg Downey at Neuronthropology.net. Downey suggests that export of mental health can also be motivated by:
[P]ure mercenary impulses, as drug companies try to persuade new markets that the individuals need their products, suffering as they do from disorders of which they were previously unaware. Here, the idea that it’s just the beliefs about illness held by therapists and authorities obscures the naked greed that goes into public relations campaigns designed to produce disorder.
He cites the case of GlaxoSmithKline’s fostering of depression in Japan, where the concept of depression (and thus treatment with their product) was unknown until 1999. The manufacturer of Paxil was forbidden by Japanese law to advertise directly to customers, so they embarked on a series of “educational” ads telling consumers: “Depression is a disease that anyone can get. It can be cured by medicine. Early detection is important.”
So, as Dr. Phil would say, “How’s that working for GlaxoSmithKline?”
Pretty well, alas! A 2007 Boston Globe article reports that depression and the drugs to treat it have taken solid root in Japan.