Psych 101 – Anthropological and Social Differences

Psychology as we learn it in America is very interesting and very different from many other places in the world. As mentioned previously:

A lot of media has improved in the way mental illnesses have been portrayed, but there are still overwhelming stigmas and stereotypes that are pervasive in everyday life. In this series, I consult our friend, a doctoral student who goes by Sanjiv, on her field of Psychology as it pertains to literature and character creation.

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We have gone over a few different things such as Major Depressive Disorder and Eating Disorders on this series, but so far we’ve been focusing specifically on American Psycopathology. In this post I want to talk about a few interesting facts about American Psychology as a system of research and diagnoses and then present a few of the differing views that can be taken when approaching the issue of mental health in diverse populations.

American psychopathology is outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), currently on its fifth version. Before we talk about its international and cross-cultural applications, it’s important to note that even within mainstream American psychology, the DSM and its current definitions (criteria) for aspects of mental health are hotly debated. In recent years, the issue of the applicability of our diagnostic categories and therapeutic techniques to minority populations in America has gained increasing attention.

In America, students are taught American psychopathology, although this caveat is not always made explicit. Many students never question that what they are taught are human universals, instead of recognizing that the lens of cultural perception binds the applicability of their knowledge.  For example, in America, our diagnosis for depression is different from European diagnosis as well as Chinese, Japanese, etc. Though sometimes slight, the differences in cultural perception and presentation of both psychopathology and “normal” mental health are important to recognize. For example, in minority cultures which place heavy emphasis on family connectedness, there have been cases where that behavior was pathologized and deemed unhealthy to the individual’s autonomous growth (enmeshment) by social workers who represented the culture in power. The value laden concepts of connection and autonomy and their respective interpretations within their cultures heavily influence the direction that this observation can take. Without the realization that (despite what has often been omitted in psychological education) the concepts and theories and techniques that we learn about mental health are culturally bound and rooted in research focused within eurocentric populations, we run the risk of continuing to disadvantage a vulnerable and disempowered population.

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Cultural research informs how psychological phenomena present across diverse groups and highlights symptoms and processes that have been erroneously generalized from our current monoculturally dominant research, but our ability to conduct cross-cultural psychological research is affected by the constraints of using a diagnostic manual that was created on theories and research using a very specific population. The bulk of research in the United States is completed using university undergraduates, a population referred to as WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) by Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan (2010). For perspective, about 80% of psychological research is conducted on this population that represents less than 12% of the world’s population. This is a trend that continues in psychology, despite evidence towards the severe limitations of such actions.

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Minority groups in America have faced many forms of discrimination within our healthcare systems. For some, this history of prejudice and mistreatment has made it difficult or impossible for them to trust and seek care. Psychology is (in Sanjiv’s opinion) a science that’s ultimate goal is applicability and advancement of mental health care for all.

Comment if you’d like recommended reading about this topic. Sanjiv is happy to provide suggestions!

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world?. Behavioral and brain sciences, 33(2-3), 61-83.

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