Mental illness as a social and cultural artifact

In the Islamic world, mental illnesses are often attributed to evil spirits, or “jinns” (Credit: Alamy)

This article is a fascinating look at the connection between certain kinds of mental illness and the different social or cultural circumstances that lead to them: “In Cambodia, for example, it’s commonly believed that the body is riddled with channels that contain a wind-like substance – and if these become blocked, the resulting wind overdose will cause the sufferer to permanently lose the use of a limb or die. Out of 100 Khmer patients at one psychiatric clinic in the US, one study found that 36% had experienced an episode of the illness at some point. Bouts usually proceed slowly, starting with a general feeling of malaise. Then, one day, the victim will stand up and notice that they feel dizzy – and this is how they know that the attack is starting. Eventually they’ll fall to the ground, unable to move or speak until their relatives have administered the appropriate first aid, which usually consists of massaging their limbs or biting their ankles.”

“In the central plateau region of Haiti, people regularly fall sick with “reflechi twòp”, or “thinking too much”, which involves ruminating on your troubles until you can barely leave the house. In South Korea, meanwhile, there’s “Hwa-byung” – loosely translated as “rage virus” – which is caused by bottling up your feelings about things you see as unfair, until you succumb to some alarming physical symptoms, like a burning sensation in the body. Dealing with exasperating family members is a major risk factor – it’s common during divorces and conflicts with in-laws.”

“in the Islamic world, it’s widely believed that it’s possible to become possessed by “jinns”, or evil spirits. They can be good, bad, or neutral, but they’re generally blamed for erratic behaviour. The concept is so mainstream, it’s even in the Muslim holy book, the Koran. “A lot of my patients do hold these beliefs quite strongly,” says Shahzada Nawaz, a consultant psychiatrist at North Manchester General Hospital in the UK.  Nawaz explains that the ability to invoke jinns is particularly useful in Islamic cultures, because of the stigma that tends to accompany Western mental illnesses. One study of 30 Bangladeshi patients attending a mental health service in an east London borough found that their family members often felt that jinn possession was responsible.”

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