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Abnormal Psychology and Culture-Bound Syndromes

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Abnormal Psychology and Culture-Bound Syndromes

As many of us know, there are unlimited differences in cultures around the world from religion to the way we communicate with one another. What many of us may not know, however, is that there are actually specific psychological disorders found only in certain areas of the world. There are several well known culture-bound disorders as well as variances in disorders and on theoretical reasons behind the disorders themselves that will be discussed throughout.

To be clear, not all of the strange things people do all over the world are disorders nor are culture-bound syndromes limited to any one region. Anorexia/bulimia nervosa, for example, is a disorder found in the west but not in Third World countries. This could be due to the differences in emphasis the cultures put on thinness of women in the media or feelings of a need to be in control (Matsumoto, 1994). Just north of the U.S., there are the Algonquin Indians in Canada who are unique in having a disorder among them called witiko. Witiko is a delusional disorder that involves the belief that one has been possessed by a man-eating monster. Oftentimes the person suffering will commit suicide before acting on these cannibalistic impulses (Matsumoto, 1994). Witiko is a rare example of a culture-bound syndrome found in Indian culture. Many of their practices are centered on spiritual communication and therefore not considered abnormal or disorders. Arctic Hysteria is another culture-bound syndrome that falls in the somatoform category of disorders. Arctic Hysteria is only found in Alaska, and the

symptoms include dissociative episodes with extreme excitement and are often followed by grand mal seizures and comas (Simons, 2001). Moving on to eastern cultures, specifically Southeast Asia and Pacific Island areas, there is what is known as amok. Amok is a dissociative disorder in which a person is said to enter a trance like state, become highly excited, and start attacking things, whether they be people or just objects (Nevid, Rathus, Greene, 2006). This is where the phrase вЂ?running amuck’ comes from. The last two culture-bound syndromes to be mentioned are somatoform disorders found primarily in Asian and Indian males. Koro is impotence resulting from the fear that the penis is shrinking (Matsumoto, 1994), and dhat syndrome is the intense fear or anxiety of losing semen through nocturnal emissions or even urination (Nevid, Rathus, Greene, 2006). To the men of India semen is the elixir of life, and it provides health and longevity. With that being said, it is not hard to imagine how these men might develop this fear when a commonly held Hindu belief is it takes “ forty meals to form one drop of blood; forty drops of blood to fuse and form one drop of bone marrow, and forty drops of this to form one drop of semen.” (Nevid, Rathus, Greene, 2006). If my math is correct, this means that a man will make about 1 drop of semen every 59 years.

An interesting thing to point out with culture-bound syndromes is that there is a level of understanding of a specific culture needed before any help can be administered. As with all cultures and people, everyone is brought up thinking a certain way and doing certain things. For an outsider with their own views and beliefs to go in and try to fix a problem-well that could be a problem in itself. For example, in the case of amok, it seems that it is entirely predictable that people would go around having crazy homicidal outbursts because that aggressive behavior “broadly follows the patterns of societal expectations.” (Matsumoto, 1994, p.143). As for the

people with the shrinking penis disorder, this could be due to their culture’s specific emphasis on paternal authority (Matsumoto, 1994). Koro is found in Asian males which makes perfect sense from what little I know about Asian culture. I know it is a very respectful one with much emphasis on elders, specifically men. Anorexia or bulimia would be interesting disorders to try to explain to person in a Third World Country or, better yet, a small tribe somewhere where they do not even bother with clothes. These types of things are so specific that they are almost incomprehensible to those not brought up with them. Another factor of a culture-bound syndrome is how the culture will react to it (Matsumoto, 1994). In susto a person suffers from depression thought to be caused from “soul loss” (Matsumoto, 1994). When this happens to a person, a native healer will carry out sacrifices to the earth in attempts to get the soul back (Matsumoto, 1994). This could easily be a subconscious way to involve one’s self with his community or get some attention or any number of things. All of these reasons are why it is important to have a good grasp on the culture of where a person is coming from. Since the DSM-IV has been updated to include about 25 culture-bound syndromes, there has also been added an “Outline for Cultural Formation” (Smith & Smith, 1997). This outline is to help get a solid feel of a person’s cultural background. The five categories are “1) Cultural identity of the individual. 2) Cultural explanation of the individual’s illness. 3) Cultural factors related to psychosocial environment and levels of functioning. 4) Cultural elements of the relationship between the individual and the clinician. 5) Overall cultural assessment for diagnosis and care. (Smith & Smith,1997)” The DSM-IV added culture-bound syndromes it thought were common enough to see in America (Smith & Smith,1997) and hopefully that will prove to be enough cultural diversity for now. These disorders and the insight they give us into different parts of the

world are very interesting and unique, but they do not stop there. What about cross cultural differences in disorders that are not so mystical and rare?

The two most extensively studied cross cultural disorders are depression and schizophrenia (Matsumoto, 1994). In a specific study of schizophrenia that included Columbia, Czechoslovakia, Denmark,



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