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Culture and Mental Illness

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Over the centuries new influencers shaped medical thinking by writing theories, conducting experiments and giving their own understanding of what the disorder could mean (Fountoulakis, 2014). Jean-Pierre Falret in 1851 defined bipolar disorder as an illness with its current name (Fountoulakis 2014, p.11). This lead to research and findings of bipolar disorder (Fountoulakis 2014, p.21) which then became the process medical doctors learned over the years. The study of medicine is hence considered efficacious because it is based on facts and science collected throughout history thus giving it authority in explaining what works and does not for bipolar disorder.

In many American Indian groups, hearing voices of the dead is considered normal whereas in other societies spirits possess bodies (Kleinman & Good 1985, p.3). This demonstrates the ‘normal’ in one place may be ‘abnormal’ in another which doctor’s must understand. Therefore, doctors need to look into not only the illness but also the socio-cultural context and other factors including race, finance, etc. of the patient. For example, the Syphilis study continues to instil fear in black Americans with them refusing to get injected, in case of a genocide (Gamble 1997, p.1773). This also means doctors may not be considered as health practitioners in different cultures due to differing beliefs and values thus giving no authority to doctors as their work is considered ineffective. India for example, has diverse cultures and religions playing a huge role on everyday lives including illnesses and treatment (Subudhi 2014, p.132).

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Behavioural changes that are out of the ‘norm’ are considered as mental illnesses where in cultures and religions, they are interpreted differently (Subudhi 2014, p.133). For Muslims, mental illness is being possessed by a jinn (devil) as for Hindus, it is by a goddess indicating that culture and mental illness cannot be isolated (Subudhi 2014, pp.133,135). However, time and place can also influence one’s understandings of mental health and its treatment (Subudhi 2014, p.135). For example, when living abroad many people follow their religion and a doctor’s advice. Subudhi hence says ‘people follow both traditional with biomedical healing systems in parallel’, (2014, p.137). In ancient times, mental illnesses were the result of supernatural influence which affected minds (Wanger, cited in Subudhi 2014, p.137). This concept still exists. Srivastavas (2002) explains three distinctive theories for the reason of mental illness. In his supernatural theory, he states ‘the possession of a soul causes a change in the psychology of a person.’ With this, people will approach non-medical healers to remove the evil spirits (cited in Subudhi 2014, p.136). The roles of these healers, shamans, priests and mullahs in culture and society hence is of being health practitioners and so a doctor is actually a non-medical doctor to them. These healers get their knowledge from their religion, traditions and culture making their work for their patients authentic. People go to both medical and other health practitioners because they see results otherwise there would be no reason to go back. Other issues faced by doctors is that many do not want to be shunned out by society nor looked down upon. Many people do not seek medical attention for mental illness ‘as it is considered a shame, taboo or stigma’ as Subudhi states (2014, p.138). This is how society and culture plays a role on doctors.


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