Culture and Mental Illness?
April 23, 2006 2:32 PM   Subscribe

Where can I find out more about superstitious beliefs and mental illness on a more global level?

The idea of how other cultures perceive mental illness has always fascinated me, and I have read a little bit about it in doing research for other topics. However, now that I am actively trying to seek this out, I can't seem to find anything. :\

Anything having to do with psychology and other cultures is what I really want to read up on, but anything that focuses more on superstition would be what I'm looking for.

I've tried google and google scholar, but I'm not even sure what terms to look for. Mental illness, world, superstition and attitudes have not actually yielded as much information as I would have thought.

So I guess my question is this - Where should I be looking? What terms should I be using? Any other personal anecdotes would be cool, too.
posted by Dance Commander to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Medical anthropology is the field you're looking for, in my opinion. The Society for Medical Anthropology site has some good stuff; Brown's "Understanding and applying medical anthropology" is a good start, suitable for non-anthropologists. (I took a med anthro course last year -- loved it -- and I'm a biologist-in-training, so Brown's book doesn't need a lot of pre-installed knowledge.)

In the popular literature, Wade Davis' The serpent and the rainbow is very good, imho. He trained as an ethnobotanist at Harvard; the book is the story of his trip to Haiti to investigate the organic, social and cultural explanations for zombie-ism in the Voudon (voodoo) religion.
posted by docgonzo at 2:41 PM on April 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Arthur Kleinman is one of the leaders in this field. His work would be a great place to start.
posted by j-dawg at 3:35 PM on April 23, 2006

You have to be thinking 'superstition' when you read it, but Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization is a good place to start.
posted by Yeomans at 4:53 PM on April 23, 2006

Second the Foucault recommendation. See also Mental Illness and Psychology.
posted by Bryan Behrenshausen at 5:56 PM on April 23, 2006

well i'm not sure what terms you could use specifically, but in many cultures, what we call mental illness is a sign of a spiratual gift. hallucinations, dissociative states and even manic episodes can be seen as communication from the gods/spirits whatever, and the people are honored rather than denigrated.
posted by gilsonal at 7:04 PM on April 23, 2006

What terms should I be using?

Former medical anthropology grad student here; try searching for "folk beliefs"+"mental illness" or "folk illness" or "folk medicine"+"mental illness" or various combinations of phrases like "folk taxonomy," "lay concepts" and "mental illness." That should land you right in the thick of things.
posted by mediareport at 12:54 AM on April 24, 2006

You might want to try googling "culture-bound syndrome", too.
posted by maryh at 1:30 AM on April 24, 2006

Does epilepsy count as mental illness? If it does for your purposes, then you might find The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down an interesting read. It's the story of a culture clash between the folk beliefs of an immigrant community and Western medicine with tragic results.
posted by luneray at 8:47 AM on April 24, 2006

Did you see the Exorcism of Emily Rose? I don't know if the anthropologist (or psychologist?) in the movie was based on a real person. But she argued in court that "demon posession" was a cross cultural explanation for certain mental illnesses. The movie is based on an exorcism in the 1970s in Germany.

And, the book Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey is one example I can think of telling a story that mental illness can only exist in relation to a society. Um, in other words, you can only be mentally ill if you are in a group of people to compare yourself with. If you are by yourself you are just you.

I am not a writer.
posted by 9000.68 at 8:45 AM on April 25, 2006

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