Are We as Sick as We Think We Are? :Cultural Influence on Mental Illness


The first time I was hospitalized for a suicide attempt was when I was in high school. I must have been around 15 years old. I remember feeling anxious about getting out–Thanksgiving was approaching and I didn’t want to miss it. I thought about how embarrassed my mom would be when asked by my aunts and cousins why I wasn’t there. I said everything I thought I should say to the doctors to get out: that I was feeling better, fine, ready to go home.

I made it out for Thanksgiving. Interactions with my family were awkward at best. I don’t remember anybody asking me how I was doing except for my cousin who asked if I was “better now.” I told her yes but knew in my heart that my answer was for her benefit, not mine. I didn’t feel better, I just wanted to make her feel better.

Throughout my life, I have found myself telling people over and over again what I think they want to hear. When I was hospitalized twice this past year, my coworkers showed concern when I returned but did not call or visit while I was away, not even once I was out of the hospital. I would occasionally receive a “We miss you” text, but that was about it. Similar distance prevailed in my other relationships. Even after a friend had taken me in when I had no place to live, we seldom spoke. She felt slighted by the distance and kicked me out.

I began to wonder how different my life would’ve been if I’d had cancer or kidney failure. I fantasized about caring doctors and hospital visits from friends and coworkers followed by flowers and cards. Images of people walking for breast cancer and raising money for Alzheimer’s and juvenile diabetes marched through my head. I couldn’t shake the feeling that any one of these conditions would have been met with more care and compassion than my diagnoses of depression and PTSD.

Our beliefs about mental illness have a strong effect on our diagnosis, our treatment and even the expression of the disease. We often fail to recognize that certain disorders are endemic to our culture and are seen less or not at all in other cultures. For instance, while the incidence of schizophrenia is fairly consistent across cultures, rates of depression vary widely. Why is this?

Our cultural values influence our perceptions of symptoms we find troubling as well as the way we express them. For example, a culture which values independence might see a strong reliance on others as problematic, causing people to feel “needy” and pressuring them to go it alone. These same values could also cause others to keep this person at a distance and doctors influenced by these values might be more likely to encourage medication and self-reliance in order to heal.

Our culture values productivity, independence and consumerism and if you’re not doing those things, there’s an issue. If you’re unhappy, the impetus is to look inward instead of looking at environmental, social and cultural factors making you sick. Just imagine if we lived in a culture that valued authenticity and compassion for all people over a contribution to the gross domestic product!

Perhaps we are not as sick as we think. We live in a culture that values what you contribute more than who you are, a culture that values achievement, success and beauty based on what sells. If we’re not achieving everything society dictates we should be, is there something wrong with us or with society?

What does our culture know about the value of human life? We make laws to restrict a woman’s right to choose in order to preserve a potential life, yet we send our sons and daughters off to be slaughtered in the next righteous war. We live in a society that does not believe in meeting people’s basic needs for food and shelter but believes that if people are homeless or hungry it is because they are not applying themselves and they certainly don’t deserve help.

Are these the standards by which we judge ourselves? If we find that we are “depressed” or lost or hopeless perhaps it is an accurate reflection of the state of our lost humanity. I’m certainly not implying that self-reflection is not conducive to healing but I believe we need to widen our scope and look at how the world we live in is contributing to our illness. Perhaps we should stop blaming ourselves and other people for the hardships they experience and start helping each other to heal.

How might our experience of sadness and hardship change if we looked at it as part of the human experience? How might our experience of healing change if we looked at others as extensions of ourselves? Might we find the healing of one to be the healing of all? Could we heal our collective hurt and work together to build peace and compassion?

Sometimes I think not………………..but the question keeps me hopeful.

Thank you for reading.


4 thoughts on “Are We as Sick as We Think We Are? :Cultural Influence on Mental Illness

  1. It can only be accomplished if each of us starts. Perhaps you describe an ideal stae but there are many ideals that humans try to achieve. Why not this one too? I recently commented on a young woman’s question “I have (and she listed conditions from ADHA to Schizoaffective Disorder) and I want to know if I’ll ever be able to work” with a response similar to this: “ifi you help one person like you with information about something that has helped you may have done more than most normals, whatever that i, will have done that have lead a normal life.”

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for returning the encouragement. I reviewed my own actions and plans while I wrote it and decided not to ignore the latest “you have x days till your meetup expires” email and took a look.. Two people had joined the group I started then stepped down from three weeks ago when I was the only member. I’ve decided to give it another month or two and either host google voice meetings or create a interactive site using the domain name I own for that purpose. It’s called (I thought it was better than 😉

        Liked by 1 person

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