social determinants of health

Culture’s effect on well-being: Examining connections between industrialism, mental health, and culture-bound syndromes

Although public health has an objective and scientific connotation, systems of thought and belief also affect well-being, with equal, if not greater, impact. For instance, global differences in the occurrence of mental health conditions reveal that social conditions are in part responsible for citizens’ mental health. Furthermore, in a world of globalization, cultural diffusion has affected societal standards in even the most remote regions, thus affecting local communities’ perceptions of health and wellness. In this post, we’ll investigate how cultural standards have impacted societal well-being in a global context.

Industrialism and Mental Health

Cultural traits can play a prominent role in the development of mental health conditions prevalent in a society. To see this in practice, one needs to look no further than the American ideal of individuality and success. As a result of this standard, one’s fear of failure is often magnified by the pressure to succeed—this is in part responsible for the disturbing statistic that nearly 20% of the population suffer from anxiety disorder.

In contrast, Bhutan, a country famed for the highest gross national happiness index, has historically painted a starkly different picture: much of their largely-rural population lives with content and fulfillment. In the past, occurrences of mental health conditions in Bhutan have been rare, but unfortunately, this trend has reversed in recent years: depression and suicide rates have recently risen, and because of the lack of avenues for those affected to seek help, mental illness has been stigmatized. Why has a society once free of such illnesses become a victim to them?

In the past few years, urbanization and industrialism have risen in Bhutan. Source: Antonio Morales Garcia.

Unfortunately, the increase in mental illness is caused in part by the rise of industrialization and rural-to-urban migration. Working long hours in manufacturing- and service-sector jobs is a stark change from the agrarian lifestyle that characterized the old Bhutan, leaving many unable to cope with the greater demands of new work. Additionally, the rapid growth of urban centers has led to greater rates of alcoholism and substance abuse, which can worsen health conditions. Bhutan’s situation reveals a dire reality about economic development: The transition to industrialism comes at the expense of mental and social well-being. As Bhutan becomes more and more of an industrial society, we may see reality worsen in the coming years into a situation like that of the U.S.

The global distribution of mental health disorders reveals that such conditions are generally more prevalent in industrial societies. Source: Our World in Data.

Culture-Bound Syndromes

Although certain mental health conditions are more prevalent in industrial regions, other illnesses affect smaller communities in a more localized way: such illnesses, known as culture-bound syndromes, are sociocultural forms of illness unique to a particular region. For example, many Latin Americans experience susto—a form of suffering stemming from witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event—after the death of a family member. Treatment requires a type of folk medicine called curanderismo, consisting of a combination of herbal remedies, prayer, and ceremonies. Drawing off of the Latin American belief in “hot” and “cold” objects, curanderismo attempts to restore balance to the body, and such folk medicine has been successful in reducing patients’ symptoms. Cognizant of these cultural beliefs, doctors in these areas of the world can modify their approaches to better treat those affected.

Although skeptics may criticize non-Western forms of medicine as non-scientific or ineffective, these criticisms are often untrue: over hundreds of years, through trial and error, many communities have mastered alternative forms of therapy (e.g. herbal remedies) that trigger biochemical pathways to treat conditions. Similarly, the focus on individual well-being, created through ceremonies and rituals, can provide greater mental comfort than a bottle of pills. Finally, we ought to recognize drawbacks in our own system of healthcare, such as the motive for profit and the lack of accessibility, which can render our own system unsuccessful at times. Hence, finding a balance between these healthcare approaches (using science while appreciating individual and cultural well-being) is necessary to effectively treat patients’ conditions.

Thus, in global health, providing care in both a culturally-competent and effective manner can pave the road for addressing the next generation of health problems—only by achieving an delicate balance will we be able to address global issues while respecting cultural backgrounds.


Further reading

Srivastava, Kalpana. “Urbanization and mental health.” Industrial psychiatry journal vol. 18,2 (2009): 75-6. doi:10.4103/0972-6748.64028

Dowrick, Christopher. “Depression as a culture-bound syndrome: implications for primary care.” The British journal of general practice: the Journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners vol. 63,610 (2013): 229-30. doi:10.3399/bjgp13X665189

Palffy, Alex. “Susto in Hispanic America.” Michigan State University – Introduction to Medical Anthropology. Retrieved from http://anthropology.msu.edu/anp204-us13/2013/07/20/susto-in-hispanic-america/ on 10/12/2020.

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