Health & Medicine

Changing the way the world goes mad

This story is a part of

Human Needs

This story is a part of

Human Needs

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Pharmaceuticals (Image by Flickr user Nuevo Anden (cc:by-nc))

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This article was originally reported by The World. For more, listen to the audio above.

People like to think of mental health care as a scientific and objective approach that applies to all people. That's dangerous, author Ethan Watters tells "The World," because "mental illness and the expression of mental health are always shaped by culture."

Every culture and every time period has unique ways to express mental illness. Americans, however, are pushing their definition of mental health and mental illness on the rest of the world. "The West is globalizing ideas about the mind," according to Watters, "and also beliefs about what are the valid psychiatric symptoms."

The West is, in a sense, "homogenizing the way the world goes mad."

This is often not a good thing. Watters cites a study by the WHO showing that treatment for schizophrenia (pdf) is often better in the developing world. Watters also mentions how the West played a role the proliferation of anorexia nervosa, and how pharmaceutical companies created a rise in depression by selling pills to treat the ailment.

In "The World's" science forum, Watters is defending his ideas and responding to questions from listeners. Many have pointed to the role of pharmaceutical companies in pushing for Western-style drug treatments. Watters agreed, writing, "In terms of the forces pushing Western ideas across the globe, the psychopharm companies can’t be matched." But he also urged caution, writing:

I fall in the middle ground regarding the effectiveness of drugs/psychiatry. To the extent that Western drugs are effective I think they should be shared with the rest of the world. But I’m also aware that there are many abuses and misguided treatments that play out for years longer than they should. My goal as a writer has been to document these stories and publicize abuses and missteps where I find them. Sharing these stories is key to changing public opinion. Sometimes it feels like yelling into the void but I believe that simple story telling remains a powerful tool for the disenfranchised.

You can ask a question of Watters for the rest of the week in "The World's" science forum.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More "The World."