Mental Illness, Locus of Control, and Cultural Expectations

Mental illness is a trouble that has impacted many cultures across many periods of time.  In American culture, mental health is primarily understood through the lens of psychology and psychiatry. In other words, illnesses like depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder are pathologized and secularized.

Sickness is thought to be the result of an internal cause whether it is a traumatic event that has been taken to heart, or a chemical imbalance in the brain. Because American culture so aggressively touts the notion of an individual, we assume that a single person has accountability over their own mind, and thus is responsible for fixing it.

This internal locus of mental illness is not found in many other cultures. Instead the idea of spirit possession, curses, voodoo, or spiritual loss is central in many other societies’ perception of mental illness. A person suffering from mental is suffering from some external, supernatural factor enacting harm onto them. Here, the contrast between secularized societies and the spiritual societies is very apparent.

Furthermore, one cannot separate the mind from the culture in which it exists. Therefore, ignoring different culture’s treatment of mental illness would be neglecting how the disease –if it is even labeled as such –is experienced in those cultures.

There is something to learn from other societies in which the cultural factors are regarded as having a large impact on a person’s mental health. Western culture tends to ignore the macrocosm in favor of the microcosm. We separate the brain, its cells, and its hormones from the phenomenon of consciousness in treating mental illness by prescribing antidepressants at a rate that has increased by about 400% in the last twenty years.  This is essentially a treatment of symptoms rather than causes.

As Westerners and executors of global health initiatives, we should caution ourselves against dismissing other peoples’ notions of mental illness as far-fetched or “culture causative” when our own ideas of illness are deeply embedded in our own culture.