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Culture and Psychopathology

The Anthropology of Mental Illness

Georgi Onchev

The book sets itself the ambitious task of exploring the relationship between human culture and the phenomenon of mental illness, that which has embarrassed, fascinated, and challenged educated minds throughout the centuries. Various manifestations of this phenomenon are examined in specific cultural contexts, presented with notable competence, and illustrated with memorable descriptions of clinical cases. (…) The book and its author have many merits—the capacity to present a highly specialized subject in an intelligible, absorbing, and simultaneously profound manner; respectable erudition and academic self-discipline; and the notable skill of handling different domains of knowledge, among others. The most remarkable quality, however, is the author’s concern both for the reader—who is carefully led into quite unknown and still frightening territory—as well as for his protagonists, the mentally ill. All told, I believe that this book will be of interest not just to students of psychiatry, psychology, and anthropology, but also to a broader circle of readers who are excited by the wretched and admirable destiny of being human.

Haralan Alexandrov

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3 Cultural Context at Home: the Bulgarian Odysseus


Troy is reachable; still unreachable is Ithaca.

T. Zhechev

There hardly exists any Bulgarian who would not furrow their brow suspiciously at the idea of anyone attempting to summarize the Bulgarian mentality. But, then again, one would be hard pressed to find any French, Portuguese, or Maasai person who wouldn’t react similarly when confronted with generalizations about their people. While stereotypes are readily accepted towards others, they seem to be only provisionally applied when it comes to ourselves (Chapter 2). Inside the community, individual variety is appreciated and labels—otherwise, easily attached to others—are rejected. The very notion of specific national qualities, or something resembling a national character, is extremely contestable27, 76, 143 and misleading. Factor analysis of personality traits, for instance, demonstrates a universal personality structure,133 while diversity of temperament and character is evident in all known human communities. The construct of a nation itself is a relatively new one (since the end of the 18th century), and is neither ethnically nor socially homogeneous. At the same time, particular communities’ ethnic and cultural characteristics are well differentiated, and are clearly related to the manifestations of both mental health and illness (Chapter 5). Despite conceptual and political vagueness about what ethnicity means, it has been found that ethnic signs have a more pronounced impact on cultural traits and psychopathology than the influences of national affiliation, geographical proximity, historical ties, or religion.115 Therefore, each exercise in national characterology should take ethnic priorities into...

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