Over the past 30 years, Americans have been industriously exporting our ideas about how to treat mental illness and how to achieve mental health. In CRAZY LIKE US: The Globalization of the American Psyche, acclaimed journalist Ethan Watters reveals that in teaching the rest of the world to think like us, we have been, for better and worse, homogenizing the way the world goes mad.
Traveling from Hong Kong to Sri Lanka to Zanzibar to Japan, Watters witnesses firsthand that as we sell our drugs and popularize our mental health treatments, attempting to modernize other culture’s understanding of a mental illness, we often end up steamrolling indigenous expressions of madness and replacing them with our own. American versions of depression, post traumatic stress disorder and our eating disorders are spreading around the world like contagions and the virus is us.
Should America be the self-appointed therapist to the world? Given the state of mental health in our culture – where studies find that one in four Americans have a diagnosable mental illness every year – it is time to consider whether our modern approaches have brought us a heightened level of mental health. Looking at other cultures that have not yet medicalized so much of the human condition, Watters finds that we may have more to learn than we have to teach.
In Zanzibar, Watters explores why schizophrenics in traditional cultures have a better prognosis than those in America. He discovers that our Western biomedical conception of mental illness actually increases the social stigma placed on the mentally ill. He compares spirit possession notions as they are being replaced with biomedical explanations for madness and concludes that religious explanations bind the sufferer more closely to the family and kinship group. Our attempts to decrease stigma by promoting a “brain disease” model for mental illness have done the opposite both at home and abroad.