What it means to have a culture-bound syndrome

If you tell a distressed woman that her suffering is a culture-bound syndrome, perhaps citing examples that she would find bizarre, you shouldn’t expect a pleasant and understanding response. It sounds dismissive, like saying it’s “all in her head” or a manipulative tactic to garner sympathy.

There have been a flutter of articles about culture-bound syndromes in the wake of the DSM-5 publication, and a piece on the The Guardian (Are mental illnesses such as PMS and depression culturally determined?) seems to have inspired this one on Jezebel and then this one on Slate.  There are many good links in the articles and I recommend clicking if you’re interested in the topic.  But what comes through to me in some sections of the writing and definitely in the comments is the attitude that if an illness is culture-bound, it’s not real.  Many of the comments are defensive, daring others to say that what they’re experiencing is a lie.  This can be complicated by a mainstream understanding that something “cultural” is something shared, yet (to use the main example from the articles) not every woman in Western cultures has PMS or experiences it in the same way. Does this mean that those who do are exaggerating for effect or making it up?

No.  However, we start to wade into the swamp of the “really real” where I so often find myself lost. I know I’m not alone in struggling to understand what it means for someone to have a culture-bound syndrome and I’d make a mess if I tried to unpack a lot of theory.  However, I think it’s a common mistake to see these syndromes as only a way of expressing emotions that don’t have another path of release. I’m more inclined toward the notion of local biologies, where societal and cultural expectations play a role, but so can genetics and epigenetics, diet, and environment.

We do a disservice by pointing out the culture-bound syndromes of others without inclusively evaluating those that might be our own (not at higher levels of study, but certainly in lower levels and mainstream articles). It wrongly puts Western culture in a position of rationality and superiority, smiling at the quaint confusion of others, rather than questioning our own socially accepted conditions that are proving to be non-universal and WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic).

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