Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Toxic Culture or Does Being American Make You Crazy ?

Adbusters makes a compelling argument that American culture or the American Way of Life actually produces mental illness. Showing that immigrants have a gradually increasing rate of depression in spite of increasing income or because of it has serious implications for our society as a whole.

"In a fascinating study published in 1998 in the Archives of General Psychiatry, William Vega, an American public health researcher at Rutgers University, showed just how psychologically corrosive American culture can become for those who drop into it from the outside.

Vega focussed on recent immigrants from Mexico. When they first arrived in the US, he found, they were much healthier than the Americans they settled among, with half the incidence of psychological dysfunction. But the longer they stayed, the sicker they got. During the first 13 years, their chance of developing a disorder in their lifetime was 18 percent. After 13 years, whatever cul-tural protection their Mexican heritage offered them had worn off, and their rates of depression, anxiety and drug problems had risen to the same level as the general population’s (32 percent).

Among Mexican-Americans born in the US, meanwhile, the rate of those afflictions soared to 49 percent. Mexican men born in the US were five times as likely as recent immigrants to experience a "major depressive episode." Drug misuse among Mexican women born in the US was seven times as high as that of recent immigrants.

Could it be that Mexicans are somehow uniquely vulnerable to this particular American cultural virus? Apparently not. Other studies have both replicated William Vega’s findings and extended them to other ethnic groups and problems, such as domestic violence. Acknowledging that "components of Mexican culture are protective against mental health problems," Vega concludes that "socialization into American culture and society [will] increase susceptibility to psychiatric disorders."

The findings present a puzzle. The Mexican immigrants Vega studied were better adjusted psychologically, even though they fall far below the US average in education and income. But that’s just the point. Income and education lose their meaning in a world of rising mental expectations and reduced life satisfaction. The former are rooted in our consumerist, media-saturated society, while the latter emerge out of the loss of collective family and community life in the face of American individualism. The real puzzle is how a problem so big can draw almost no attention at all."

Another disturbing trend is the increase in mental illness among the general population over time. Does working multiple jobs for ever increasing hours have a negative impact with no improvement in economic uncertainty make you crazy or just more aware of your social surroundings?

"Social epidemiologist Myrna Weissman at Columbia University, along with a lengthy list of collaborators, has explored this question in detail, looking at the US as well as other countries. Reporting in 1992 and 1996 in JAMA – the Journal of the American Medical Association – Weissman and colleagues found that more and more Americans are becoming depressed, they are getting depressed at a younger age, and the severity and frequency of depression is rising.

These results are neither small nor spurious. Each generation born in the twentieth century has suffered more depression than the previous one and since WWII, the overall rate of depression has more than doubled. A more recent study, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in 2000 and conducted by another team of researchers, showed more than a doubling of depression in women from 1970 to 1992. Psychiatric drug use has skyrocketed as a result. American schoolchildren today are taking four times as many psychiatric meds as all of the rest of the world combined.

What’s going on? The commonly sold narrative is that every instance of the blues, and certainly every case of clinical depression, is the result of some in-born biochemical imbalance – treatable only by serotonin drugs like Prozac. Yet these studies make it clear that something larger is at play. If your brain is indeed out of balance, the source of the trouble may very well reside in your cultural environment, not in your genes.
A recent World Health Organization (WHO) study revealed that the incidence of schizophrenia has increased 45 percent in developing nations since 1985. By far the hardest hit have been women. A separate WHO study of 14 countries showed women have twice the rate of depression as men. In Santiago, Chile, the rate was five times as high for women. (Chinese women, a previous study found, had nine times the rate of neurosis and depressive neurosis as men, and 75percent more schizophrenia.)

The WHO findings reinforce what Myrna Weissman and colleagues reported in a 1992 JAMA report on depression. In most of the countries they studied, people born since 1950 are at a much higher risk for depression than those born earlier. What makes the WHO studies so remarkable, though, is that they focus on developing nations such as India and Egypt, whose populations have seen dramatic improvements in medicine and infrastructure.

This appears as puzzling, at first glance, as the Vega studies on Mexican immigrants. But closer scrutiny solves the mystery. The very changes that have brought improved health and infrastructure in these countries have also led to significant disruptions in cultural practices, social routines, and traditional roles in work and family. To paraphrase David Byrne, These people got what they wanted, but lost what they had.

When we look closely at patterns of mental disorders around the world, one thing becomes clear: rising wealth does not improve mental health. In fact, globalization seems to leave mental degradation in its wake. Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander has come to the same conclusion.

"Because [our] western free-market society proves the model for globalization," he says, "mass addiction is being globalized, along with the English language, the Internet, and Mickey Mouse."

If the mental environment is so toxic, why aren’t we all sick? For the same reason we’re not all suffering from colds or the flu. People differ biologically and developmentally in their vulnerabilities – which may explain why, in the calculus of a society’s mental health, the impact of toxic culture tends to get overlooked. Mental disorders are considered the problems of individuals. But let’s be clear: the crisis in mental health that we face is a crisis of ecology and culture, not one of brains, biochemistry, and medicine.

The WHO predicts that depression will become one of the most common disabling disorders in the world by 2020, second only to heart disease (it has already reached the number one spot for women). Pretty soon, Mexicans and other immigrants won’t have to come to North America to be exposed to toxic culture, USA. It will come to them. Culture is, after all, America’s greatest export."

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