There is an epidemic of mental illness across this country and people (including young children) are being diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorders, anxiety disorders and ADHD by the thousands. Individuals are rushing to find remedies; from doctors, gurus, and from diet programs, exercise routines and over the counter pills and tonics.

When you stand in line at the check out counter with that vial of energy supplement grasped in your hand, think about the fact that people in other cultures cope with depression, anxiety and mood swings in very different ways. We can learn from their traditions and their strategies.

The field of cultural anthropology was my focus for many years and I learned that the lived experiences and traditions of other cultures can provide insights and wider perspectives for professionals and lay persons.

We, the majority, view mental health issues through the narrow lens of our own cultural traditions and we have adopted the assumptions that our society promulgates. The assumptions about mental health are as follows:

  • There is a category called normal and that it can be described and defined in emotional and behavioral terms.
  • Emotional distress– mental illness– is primarily a biologically and brain- based set of illnesses and that diagnostic categories and algorithms lead to effective medications that have been scientifically proven to treat these diseases.
  • Mental illnesses exist as chronic diseases and should be treated as internal disorder and the context (environment and lived experiences) are of secondary importance.
  • Those who are diagnosed with a mental illness are not strong or functional individuals who can solve their own problems and cope with stress or understand their own disorders. They require a doctors help to recommend treatment.

It is important that we step outside of the boundaries of our own historical assumptions and view mental health through a wide lens. The assumptions mentioned above are oppressive and dictatorial and lead us to consider ourselves abnormal if we have feelings and thoughts that do not fit into a normal template that has no real definition.

We need to be able to expand our views, to capture our lived experiences in positive terms and take back our freedom of expression.

Within our society, there are minority populations that have not and do not buy into these and other assumptions about mental health.

This article speaks about the African American community specifically because of the authors own experience base with this community and the reality that their voices should be heard in relation to mental health issues.

Other cultures (Asian/American for example) also have their own perspectives on mental health but have unique qualitative aspects and should be considered separately.

Depression, its causes and treatments is a subject of constant debate and depression is, because of its prevalence, a key target for drug companies and their research department.

Recently, a new drug advertised as an add on for depression has been developed by Otsuka Pharmaceuticals ( a Japanese company) and the drug is Rexulti, as reported by U S News July 13. It is FDA approved after two, six-week trials with 1,300 people.

A substantial number of individuals who, although they suffer from depression, will not be influenced by the craftsmanship of the advertising for this drug nor will they seek medication at all.

Many individuals in the African American community and especially Black women, who tend to be the spokespersons in this community, view the biologically-based model of mental illness and the medication-based approach as oppressive and abusive.

The issue of depression within the African American community in general has been examined because of concerns about the low participation rate in the mental health system of this population.

Depression is very common within this community and according to numbers from various sources there are 7.5 million African Americans with wepression as a diagnosed mental illness. Up to the same amount are affected but undiagnosed and women represent more than twice the number of males with depression.

The questions that we need answers to for our own education are:

  • Why dont they reach out for help within the mental health system? What do they see as dysfunctional and damaging within this system? How do they perceive and cope with their own emotional distress?
  • The author that we reference below answers some of these questions and states that the voices and views of African American women have rarely been taken into account and they are an invisible population within the mental health system.

To me, it seems perfectly adaptive and pragmatic for many of us to refuse yet another label and its associated prejudices and preconceptions. And, it is highly disturbing that we would be pathologized for, essentially, resisting further oppression.

Putting a medical label onto an experience does not make the experience any more or less real or painful. Nor does it validate it; all it does is just this: it gives it a medical label. The imprisonment of Black womens experiences within a medical discourse needs to be questioned.

Indeed, it does not speak to all of us. Personally, it was only during the course of my psychology studies that I realized that this recurring feeling of imminent passing out had a medical term: anxiety or panic attacks. Calling this anxiety did not provide comfort or reassurance. I did not think: great, now I know whats wrong with me. I felt angry. Angry and invisible. Angry and re-traumatized.

Depressed woman photo available from Shutterstock