Book Review: Crazy Like Us by Ethan Watters

by lackofsolidity on October 12, 2010

Though this sort of book is not my usual forté, I am only a psychology major after all.

This is a nonfiction work explaining the influence of our country’s mental health practices throughout the world. Also, it delves more into the details of our approach. “Mental illness is feared and has such a stigma because it represents a reversal of what Western humans have come to value as the essence of human nature […] Because our culture so highly values self-control and control of circumstances, we become abject when contemplating mentation that seems more changeable, less restrained and less controllable, more open to outside influence, than we imagine our own to be.” (pg. 165)

It discusses how the expression of mental illness comes in different forms throughout different cultures. For example, “Southeastern Asian males sometimes suffer koro, the debilitating certainty that their genitals are retracting into their body.” (pg. 2)

Anorexia was originally shown in many Asian countries to have no relation to the desire to be thin, but instead to pain in the lower organs. However, as Western diagnoses spread, so did the ways emotional disturbances would appear. Classic anorexia symptoms springs up in mass numbers. It seems that trying to help the world with our methods of mental medicine may be also harming them.

The book also looks into the drug companies’ and psychiatrists’ relationships. Psychiatrists are basically bribed to prescribe the companies’ medications to their patients, thus undermining their main goal by also having their own profit in the picture. A Japanese psychiatrist, Dr. Tajima, is interviewed; he compares modern psychiatry to prostitution. “We were very cheap prostitutes.” (pg. 248)

It also delves into the effectiveness (or lack thereof) certain drugs, especially SSRIs. “[…] the idea that SSRIs restore a natural balance of serotonin is a theory without evidence.” (pg. 235) Furthermore, it describes some of the processes by which Western mental health practices have spread, e.g. changing the culture’s psyche through media and other forms. One slogan for depression is that it is like “a cold of the soul.” (pg. 225)

If you’re interested in the staying up with current events in psychology, definitely check this book out. Also, it’s good if you just love to question our society, because this whole book is about questioning the mass standard. It’s not necessarily a vote to one side or another. “All cultures struggle with these intractable diseases [mental illnesses of some sort] with varying degrees of compassion and cruelty, equanimity and fear. My point is not that they necessarily have it right – only that they have it different.” (pg. 254)

    “The National Institute of Mental Health announced that one in every four Americans age 18 and older suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder each year. Among young adults mental illness has become the leading cause of disability.” (pg. 251)

    “As if to demonstrate the point that the creation of mental illness categories remains as much a social and cultural endeavor as a scientific process, the APA is soliciting input from the public. As of this writing there is still a ‘Make a Suggestion’ link on the association’s website describing the DSM-V project. Click on that link and you are presented with a number of options, including ‘Submit suggestions for deletion of an existing disorder’ and ‘Submit suggestions for a new disorder to be considered for addition to DSM-V.” (pg. 251-252)

    “If the irony isn’t already obvious, let me make it clear: offering the latest Western mental health theories in an attempt to ameliorate the psychological stress caused by globalization is not a solution; it is part of the problem. […] It is the psychological equivalent of handing out blankets to sick natives without considering the pathogens that hide deep in the fabric.” (pg. 253)

Ethan Watters: The Globalization of the American Psyche
66 minute presentation at Berkeley Arts and Letters

Psychology Across Cultures – 3 minute capsule on the book

Review – Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche

Americanizing the global mind?
This is a long and nuanced review of the book.

Crazy Like Us Website
Crazy Like Us Facebook