The Americanization of Mental Illness

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


January 10, 2010

The Americanization of Mental Illness

From The Americanization of Mental Illness in The New York Times:

[R]esearchers have long documented how certain emotional reactions from family members correlate with higher relapse rates for people who have a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Collectively referred to as “high expressed emotion,” these reactions include criticism, hostility and emotional overinvolvement (like overprotectiveness or constant intrusiveness in the patient’s life). In one study, 67 percent of white American families with a schizophrenic family member were rated as “high EE.” (Among British families, 48 percent were high EE; among Mexican families the figure was 41 percent and for Indian families 23 percent.) Does this high level of “expressed emotion” in the United States mean that we lack sympathy or the desire to care for our mentally ill? Quite the opposite. Relatives who were “high EE” were simply expressing a particularly American view of the self. They tended to believe that individuals are the captains of their own destiny and should be able to overcome their problems by force of personal will. Their critical comments to the mentally ill person didn’t mean that these family members were cruel or uncaring; they were simply applying the same assumptions about human nature that they applied to themselves. They were reflecting an “approach to the world that is active, resourceful and that emphasizes personal accountability,” Prof. Jill M. Hooley of Harvard University concluded. “Far from high criticism reflecting something negative about the family members of patients with schizophrenia, high criticism (and hence high EE) was associated with a characteristic that is widely regarded as positive.”

Widely regarded as positive, that is, in the United States. Many traditional cultures regard the self in different terms — as inseparable from your role in your kinship group, intertwined with the story of your ancestry and permeable to the spirit world. What McGruder found in Zanzibar was that families often drew strength from this more connected and less isolating idea of human nature. Their ability to maintain a low level of expressed emotion relied on these beliefs. And that level of expressed emotion in turn may be key to improving the fortunes of the schizophrenia sufferer.”