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Cultural Perceptions Define Mental Illness

19 Aug 2002

By Jodie Snyder

Does mental illness mean the same thing in different cultures?

Increasingly, research indicates that biology helps determine who has mental illness. Yet, researchers also recognize geography-where and how a person lives-as a factor.

A growing field of ethnopsychiatry looks at how cultures shape mental illness.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, the bible for psychiatric practitioners, now lists specific cultural disorders.

For Hispanics, there is susto (fright or soul loss), an illness tied to a frightening event. And ataque de nervios, (attack of the nerves), which includes screaming and uncontrollable crying.

Susto may be a forerunner to post-traumatic stress, prevalent in American culture, said Dr. Elizabeth Valdez of Concilio Latino de Salud, a Phoenix public health organization.

Dr. Lauro Amezcua-Patino, a Valley psychiatrist and author of a book in Spanish about anxiety disorders, agrees susto is real but said it may be overblown. Instead, there should be more emphasis on how different cultures view illness, he said.

While Americans look at illness in general as something to be conquered, Hispanics are more accepting. "And that may be a more realistic view of living with a mental illness."

Copyright 2002, Used with permission from The Arizona Republic.

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