How culture shapes illness


Media analysis magazine Stay Free! has an interview with medical historian Edward Shorter on how psychiatric symptoms have changed over the years, showing, he claims, how we subconsciously express culturally acceptable distress.

The interview was conducted in June 2003, which I missed it at the time, but Shorter’s work is usually too good to pass up when you get the chance.

Author of the acclaimed A History of Psychiatry, he is not easily pigeon-holed into the simple labels usually given to those who pitch into the psychiatry debate.

Although a strong believer in the reality of mental illness, he presents evidence for the influence of culture on how symptoms express themselves, and how doctors’ expectations affect what they diagnose and treat.

In contrast to the usual tempered and cautious claims made by academics, he is not afraid to state his point of view in clear terms, making provocative points, even if you don’t agree with him.

STAY FREE!: You wrote about how some of the most fashionable people have the most cutting edge symptoms, the ones that are most medically up to date. Can you give me an example?

SHORTER: If we’re talking about today, new illnesses appear first among educated people simply because they are more plugged into medical media. These middle- and upper-class people are the first to begin monitoring themselves or their children for evidence of peanut-butter allergies or excessive tiredness. It is from these relatively small social groups that the symptoms radiate out.

Shorter reflects a growing trend in understanding the social dimensions of psychopathology.

Anthropologist Roland Littlewood’s Pathologies of the West, and sociologist Robert Bartholomew’s Exotic Deviance both examine the issue from different angles with refreshing insight.

Link to interview with Edward Shorter from Stay Free! magazine.
Link to article ‘Protean nature of mass sociogenic illness: From possessed nuns to chemical and biological terrorism fears’ from the British Journal of Psychiatry.

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