losing the battle of the mind

cheese productA 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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