What Role Does Culture Play in the Definition of Mental Illness?

Essay by hfctorchCollege, UndergraduateA, November 2006

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"Emotional and mental disorder is widespread in human societies" (Ingham, 1996: 142). Vulnerability to emotional and mental disorder is inherent in the psychological characteristics of human beings because, like personality, disorder is a response to life events and particular social circumstances. Social experience and cultural settings are pertinent in the observation of the origins of disorder, as they affect both the inner experience of disorder and its outer manifestations. More important is an understanding that emotional expression - namely that of disorders such as depression, hysteria and schizophrenia - is both a natural and socially constructed part of social interaction (Ingham, 1996: 116). While a particular expressed emotion may exist cross-culturally, its definition and conception varies according to the culture in which it exists. The importance of culture also rings true when it comes to mental illness.

"Emotion occurs within the mind and the body, but it is also a social phenomenon" (Ingham, 1996: 116).

Human beings experience emotion when participating in social interaction, as well as upon remembering or imagining people or events. Positive emotions often accompany love, attachment and empowerment, while negative emotions are often a response to losses, including those of love, status or reputation. When people are unable to express their emotions, or when expression fails to bring relief, the result may be emotional disorder, such as depression or hysteria (Ingham, 1996: 118). The symptoms of depression include sadness, loss of appetite, disturbed sleep patterns, feelings of hopelessness and suicidal thoughts, as well as loss of pleasure in life. The common experiential core of depression in many cultures may be a feeling of meaninglessness and absurdity and a sense of emptiness and soul loss, while other symptoms vary (Ingham, 1996: 119). Verbalization of sadness, guilt and self-criticism is characteristic of westerners, whereas among people in many...