Culture and Mental Health

A wreath is laid in memoriam to victims of the Washington Navy Yard shooting.

On Monday, September 16, 2013, a gunman killed 12 people as the workday began at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, DC. Aaron Alexis, 34, had a troubled history: he thought that he was being controlled by radio waves. He called the police to complain about voices in his head and being under surveillance by “shadowy forces” (Thomas, Levine, Date, & Cloherty, 2013). While Alexis’s actions cannot be excused, it is clear that he had some form of mental illness. Mental illness is not necessarily a cause of violence, in fact it is far more likely that individuals with mental illness will be victims rather than perpetrators of violence (Stuart, 2003). If, however, Alexis had received the help he needed, this tragedy might have been averted.

When we hear about violent events it is common to ask yourself whether YOU are currently in “good” health? What are you thinking of to make that determination? Research shows that many (if not most) Americans automatically consider physical symptoms or the absence of illness to answer this question. Although many Americans acknowledge the importance of stress management and mental wellness to being productive and healthy, there remains to a tendency to highlight the physical in well-being and avoid acknowledging mental distress. In this chapter we will explore common conditions of mental illness and discuss the influence of culture in making a diagnosis and dispelling common misconceptions.

Learning Objectives

At the end of the chapter, you should be able to:

  1. Define the concept of mental illness.
  2. Distinguish between the presence of symptoms versus having a diagnosable disorder.
  3. Identify the two most widely used methods to classify mental illness in the world.
  4. Identify ways in which the history of classifying mental illness has changed over time.
  5. Define what is means for a disorder to be “culture-specific, or culture – bound.
  6. Explain contemporary understanding of culture – bound disorders.
  7. Name and describe examples of culture-bound syndromes still recognized in the DSM-5.
  8. Define the concept of universal mental illnesses
  9. Distinguish between the most common categories of mental illness seen worldwide.
  10. Compare and contrast between symptoms for these disorder categories.
  11. Identify and discuss common barriers to receiving mental health treatment in the United States.
  12. Identify and discuss common barriers to receiving mental health treatment world-wide.


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Culture and Psychology Copyright © 2020 by L D Worthy; T Lavigne; and F Romero is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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