W2: Perception is Everything

The culture a person is raised in will undoubtedly affect the way they view the world around them, and mental health is no exception. For a person growing up in America it can be easy to use our own American culture to explain the world around us, without considering the way other cultures influence every decision made. This ethnocentric bias can arguably be shown in the DSM, which can make looking at mental health on a global scale much more complicated, because it leads a person to compare everything we know to our own culture. This is a dangerously ineffective way of looking at mental illness and can lead a researcher to use confirmation bias when testing a hypothesis or giving a diagnosis.

In the United States, most people are confident that mental illness stems from biological hyper/hypo activity in the brain; we are exposed to these types of explanations for almost all problems, whether they be physical, emotional or mental. In fact, we’re given these explanations so often that most don’t even think beyond what we’re told. This biological theory states that schizophrenia is correlated to different sizes of certain cognitive areas of the brain, or chemical imbalances. Therefore, physicians who believe this is the cause of schizophrenia will often prescribe drugs that restore the brain’s normal chemical levels as treatment. We happily accept this reasoning, because it’s what we are taught from a young age, even though we have not proven it to be true individually.

Similarly, if we were raised to believe that the cause of mental illness were harmful spirits, as shown in McGruder’s study in Zanzibar, we would also accept this explanation as fact, without needing to have our own individual proof via experience. The study on Muslim families with schizophrenia shows that one family viewed a man named Hemed as being influenced by a hateful spirit.

Additionally, according to Metzl, when police officers and others were faced with two almost identical scenarios (one involving a diagnosed schizophrenic vs. a person with no known mental illness), the subjects’ perceptions of violence increased when mental illness was involved. This study shows that a majority of the population believed people with schizophrenia to be more dangerous and violent, which can ultimately lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. According to an article on labeling theory by C. Trueman, labeling a person will lead them to inevitably  personify what they are being accused of. This can be related to any number of accusations; children who are told they are bad students do worse in school, despite intelligence, and people labelled as criminals are known to continue to commit crimes because “criminal” is the primary label given by society, instead of “father”, for example. In other words, being diagnosed as a schizophrenic can encourage violent behavior, because of our own individual concept of how a schizophrenic person behaves.

Many factors come into play in a person’s brain in regards to mental health. The acceptable treatment of schizophrenia varies greatly on whether we view the illness as a spiritual or biological problem. Possible prescriptions can range from anti-psychotic drugs to increased dedication or worship to a spiritual higher power, such as Allah and the Qur’an in McGruder’s study. However, the treatment of illness is not the only topic where explanatory models dictate behavior. It also extends to the way we view the behavior of the person with mental illness. A person in Zanzibar will be much less likely to openly show their feelings and symptoms than a person in America, which can lead to misdiagnosis and therefore mistreatment.

Trueman, C. N. “The Labelling Theory – History Learning Site.” History Learning Site. May 25, 2015. Accessed July 15, 2016. http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/sociology/crime-and-deviance/the-labelling-theory/.


4 thoughts on “W2: Perception is Everything

  1. Amanda, great post! I agree with you when you mention that people in the United States happily accept prescription medication as a way of fixing their problem. In our Westernized culture, we are taught that everything wrong with has to deal with a biological or chemical imbalance in our bodies, as you mentioned. This super science based theory is one of the reasons I believe that doctors in America tend to spend as little time with each patient as possible. They take the blood sample, or swab the throat, etc. and leave. They have the “evidence” they just need to send it to be tested because that’s how our culture diagnoses patients. You get tests to prove of the imbalance and then directly fix the imbalance with medication prescription. In many other cultures, science is not the only factor in determining the diagnosis. The doctor in these varying cultures asks his or her patients about their social life, what stresses they may be engulfed in, what they actually believe the problem is, or where the problem originated. These doctors take the time to learn the individuals’ explanatory model is for each unique case. These doctors can then determine how to solve the problem, individually for each patient. These patients have a higher success rate because they believe in what they are prescribed! The doctor-patient relationship happens on a much deeper level than the relationship of those in Westernized cultures.

  2. Amanda,

    You bring up some really great points about how mental illness is not experienced in the same ways across cultures. I especially enjoy your point about how Americans have seemingly come to accept certain reasoning for mental illness without looking beyond the common symptoms and treatments. As you show with the case of schizophrenia, just because certain populations believe schizophrenia to be one thing, it does not mean that other groups of Americans or other groups throughout the world believe schizophrenia to be the same thing. Therefore, how can we expect to treat mental illnesses the same, universally?

    I also like your point about labeling people and how certain labels can influence the actions of the people that the labels are forced upon. I think we often try too hard to categorize illness based on outward symptoms without even trying to understand any of the other factors that influence health. Maybe if the health community can come to understand that illness is not universally understood as a set of symptoms, patients who have been misdiagnosed or mistreated may begin to receive the treatments that they need. In order to do this, we will have to look beyond the strict categories of the DSM and begin to remove labels from the treatment and understanding of mental health.


  3. Great job on your response this week! Something that really caught my attention as well as the idea off people with mental illness, specifically schizophrenia, to live up to this idea that they are more dangerous, or the “self-fulfilling prophecy.” It seems that a giving someone a label can help motivate him or her. If we tell a child its entire life they will grow up to be smart and successful, we hope they live up to this. So why are the people with schizophrenia not getting this positive reinforcement? Who are these people that are telling them they are more dangerous? I like the quote “change your mindset, change your world.” I find this to be very applicable to people of all different backgrounds with all different struggles. If we change the stigma around schizophrenia who is to say that the people suffering with this disease will amount to more of their potential?
    I love hearing the stories of people who take a diagnosis and turn it in to something wonderful. It takes motivation to not just roll over and give up after a diagnosis of any kind. I think these kind of people owe their success to the people they surround themselves with. It truly takes a village; support of people and that social connection does wonderful things for a person. I have personally witnessed what isolation can do to a friend suffering with depression. I have heard the stories of what a close friend experienced in the days that she isolated herself from the world because she thought her label of “depression” was a sentence to hide in bed. It was not until she started enjoying her life and the people who loved her that she realized she is not a diagnosis, but a strong person who can overcome obstacles. Health in the US is a tricky thing, stigma should not be one of them.

  4. Hi Amanda! I really like your post and the points you made within it. Incorporating the ideas of ethnocentrism and the labeling theory within your post was a great idea! Both of these ideas bring about a more in depth way to view problems between culture and illness. It is true that we believe what we are raised on, even without questioning it, and I think this definitely plays a factor in the medical and health care field. This is not something we have focused on yet in class, but I hope it comes up in future weeks because it has such an immense effect on cultural views surrounding medicine and illness. This seems to have played a large role in this week’s readings. The way that the families were raised in both studies were read about this week most definitely had an effect on the way that they thought of their symptoms, along with the way that the medical professionals in each place diagnosed and treated the patients. I think it is really important that people begin to think of themselves and ethnocentrism. If everyone is more self-aware that we are essentially products of our environment and our culture, then maybe we will question our beliefs more and be able to view the world, especially the medical world, from the point of view of other cultures or beliefs.

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