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Crazy like Them

CRAZY LIKE US: The Globalisation of the American Psyche

by Ethan Watters: Scribe, $32.99

How pervasive is the American culture?

Not only are we getting a sameness in the landscape across the world  – such as the proliferation of the golden arches of  MacDonalds in places like Tiananmen Square, or a Nike factory in Malaysia: America is now exporting its neuroses, courtesy of your ever-helpful drug companies.

The manifestations of mental illness are homogenising across the world. Because of the dominance of the West, young girls in Asia are absorbing the model for adolescence from a culture quite alien to their own. This has had some startling results. Once anorexia was virtually unheard of, now in places like Hong Kong, it can be a life-threatening disease and young women and girls are dying from it.

Watters makes the point that in the nineteenth century, young women exhibited the symptoms of what was then described as hysteria. They  sometimes included weight loss, but more often other symptoms such as paralysis of the lower limbs were manifested, or loss of speech. Now with celebrities whose own struggles with anorexia or bulimia are widely publicised, these forms have become an acceptable expression of mental anxiety and illness in young woman anywhere. After WW1 there was shell-shock, which manifested itself in many different ways.  A book I reviewed on radio recently, The Return of Capt. John Emmett, featured this problem and how the Brits dealt with it. According to Elizabeth Speller, its author, the war was seen as an opportunity for some unscrupulous businessmen to make money out of the mentally ill soldiers who returned from it. This same level of unscrupulous behaviour is indicated in Chapter 4 of Watters’s book where drug companies such as GlaxoSmithKline not only marketed to Japan drugs which they alleged cured depression, but they also marketed the disease to them, creating a billion-dollar industry.

After the tsunami swept its devastating path across Asia, many Western aid workers rushed to help. Watters looks at what happened in Sri Lanka, when an American psychologist, in an honest attempt to help the people, advertised the signs and symptoms of PTSD throughout all the media. It became a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.  People were responding to the list of symptoms and seeking to find cures in the modern methods of the west – rather than their own traditional ones. The author wonders if the tried and tested ways of dealing with grief by turning to family, friends and community, wouldn’t have been more effective than taking pills.

Schizophrenia, perhaps more than any other mental illness, seems to indicate that there is a social context to this kind of disease. Sufferers tend to have delusions and hear voices. In Zanzibar, someone with schizophrenia may see ghosts and hear spirit voices. A western person so afflicted may believe the CIA is beaming radio waves into their fillings. Now this belief could only apply to someone who is acquainted with the CIA, and modern dentistry, and harbours the fear that our bodies are being constantly bombarded by unseen electromagnetic waves. Delusional guilt is often associated with the Judeo-Christian culture: many sufferers hear the voice of God directly addressing them. In the US, where celebrity, wealth and power are popular fetishes, sufferers often believe they are famous or all-powerful. Urbanised populations suffer more from the disease. 68% of Swedish male sufferers of schizophrenia live in cities as do 77% of Swedish female sufferers. Family members with High Expressed Emotion (EE) about their afflicted loved ones, can actually exacerbate the disease. Watters has found that traditional methods for treating schizophrenia in Zanzibar, are more effective in controlling the disease there, than are modern drug technologies.

Now the really devastating findings about Japan and depression, or: How the drug companies showed people how to be depressed and accept it as a normal part of their lives.

Firstly, Watters describes the seductions of psychiatrists and scientists by drug companies such as GlaxoSmithKline. Discovering that mental illness had a social context relevant to each culture, but that this context inconveniently changes from place to place, the pharmaceutical companies decided to homogenise it. Previously in Japan, people generally did not get mentally ill with depression, but there was a cultural acceptance of the melancholy borne of the perception of beauty, the passing of time, etc, that is part of the appreciation of Japanese art. Gentle melancholia is a natural reaction to beauty and the existential condition of being human, but it has  become pathologised by the drug companies, who exhorted Japanese people not to feel the discomfit of even mild depression, claiming it is an unnatural condition, and to see their doctors who would prescribe them some effective medication for it. Depression is now a billion-dollar industry in Japan. However, drugs like Praxil, according to Watters, can be dangerous to young patients as suicidal thoughts can be a side-effect. Praxil has a more benign influence on middle-aged men  ?  who usually have more dollars, in any case.

Crazy Like Us is a powerful indictment of Economic Rationalism and Globalisation. Its proponents may be claiming that your health is in their best interest, when in fact, they are making you sicker, because it’s profitable for them to do so.


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