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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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9 Affective Disorder, Anxiety, and Culture


Fear materializes what arouses it.

I. Bergman

Emotions are universal and add meaning to life and events. Unlike the complex experiences of schizophrenia, they are archetypal, connected with human drives, and universally recognizable. People from different cultures can usually easily detect only through facial expressions the six basic emotions—anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise (and a seventh, contempt, which is added by some authors). According to Darwin, emotional expression is universal not only for humans but also for gorillas.46 Certain cultural differences exist in the acceptability, rules, and thresholds for expressing emotions. Individualistic cultures more often encourage the expression of negative emotions, while collectivistic ones encourage the positive, yet negative feelings are often expressed towards representatives of other groups.

The perception and decoding of emotions are also distinct. For instance, in many places in Africa smiling disguises anxiety, or other negative feelings which might be considered inappropriate for the situation by someone not familiar with the culture. There are also differences in the reasons, language, and meaning attributed to emotions. The words for many feelings cannot be precisely translated. In large linguistic families of the Third World, only one word is used to indicate both anger and sadness.142, 181 The European localization of feelings in folklore is usually in the heart, while in Japan it is in the guts. The importance assigned to emotions (and to the psychotherapies which focus on them) in North America is not as common in...

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