Book Club: Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche

Globalization is all around us.  These days, when you travel from places like China to India to the Amazon, you expect to see a few McDonald’s restaurants.  Whatever your destination, a bit of English is likely be spoken and your American apparel not too strange to foreign eyes.  Language, fashion and food inevitably spread across the globe, but what about mental illness?

Ethan Watters, author of Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche explores the effect the American definition of mental illness has on the rest of the world.  Watters says “We are flattening the landscape of the human psyche itself.  We are engaged in the grand project of Americanizing the world’s understanding of the human mind”.

In the past few decades, previously unacknowledged mental conditions have arrived across the globe as a result of American influence.  After the tsunami in Sri Lanka, for example, Westerners flooded the small country hoping to help.  They warned residents of the dangers of PTSD after having witnessed such an event.  Sri Lankan’s had never heard of such an illness, even tough they have endured decades of conflict and civil war.  But, as psychiatrists traveled to the region coming to Sri Lankan’s aid, individuals indeed began to show signs of PTSD at the mere suggestion of it’s existence.

Similarly, in Japan, only a rare and serious form of sadness was acknowledged as depression.  That is until manufacturer of Paxil, GlaxoSmithKline, stepped in and marketed minor depression to the Japanese.  They suggested that depression was commonplace affecting everyone, even highly regarded professionals.  GlaxoSmithKline’s ads effectively destigmatized the condition landing millions of Japanese on antidepressant medications.  Just years earlier they were hardly aware such a condition existed.

Watters’ book explores four such examples showing that psychiatric illness is experienced differently on a cultural basis.  While people of varying backgrounds experience emotions much differently, the American way of thinking is beginning to take root internationally.  Whether planted by post-natural disaster volunteers or drug companies looking to profit, western ways are creeping into the international psyche.

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While Watters’ argument is a bit one sided, he never explores the faults of other culture’s approach to mental health, he makes some interesting points.  Watters’ explanation of how diseases like anorexia developed in Hong Kong are page-turners making for a quick read.  He avoids getting too academic holding reader’s attention from beginning to end.  Crazy Like Us is a must-read for healthcare professionals as it offers a unique perspective on mental illness around the globe.

I give it five stars.

How would you rate Crazy Like Us?  Do you think Watters’ presentation of the problem is too one-sided?

Up next?  Next month’s featured book is In Stitches By Anthony Youn, MD.  Read along to participate in next month’s discussion!

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