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It is well known that American culture is a dominant force at home and abroad; our exportation of everything from movies to junk food is a well-documented phenomenon. But is it possible America's most troubling impact on the globalizing world has yet to be accounted for? In Crazy Like Us, Ethan Watters reveals that the most devastating consequence of the spread of American culture has not been our golden arches or our bomb craters but our bulldozing of the human psyche itself: We are in the process of homogenizing the way the world goes mad.
America has been the world leader in generating new mental health treatments and modern theories of the human psyche. We export our psychopharmaceuticals packaged with the certainty that our biomedical knowledge will relieve the suffering and stigma of mental illness. We categorize disorders, thereby defining mental illness and health, and then parade these seemingly scientific certainties in front of the world. The blowback from these efforts is just now coming to light: It turns out that we have not only been changing the way the world talks about and treats mental illness — we have been changing the mental illnesses themselves.
For millennia, local beliefs in different cultures have shaped the experience of mental illness into endless varieties. Crazy Like Us documents how American interventions have discounted and worked to change those indigenous beliefs, often at a dizzying rate. Over the last decades, mental illnesses popularized in America have been spreading across the globe with the speed of contagious diseases. Watters travels from China to Tanzania to bring home the unsettling conclusion that the virusis us: As we introduce Americanized ways of treating mental illnesses, we are in fact spreading the diseases.
In post-tsunami Sri Lanka, Watters reports on the Western trauma counselors who, in their rush to help, inadvertently trampled local expressions of grief, suffering, and healing. In Hong Kong, he retraces the last steps of the teenager whose death sparked an epidemic of the American version of anorexia nervosa. Watters reveals the truth about a multi-million-dollar campaign by one of the world's biggest drug companies to change the Japanese experience of depression — literally marketing the disease along with the drug.
But this book is not just about the damage we've caused in faraway places. Looking at our impact on the psyches of people in other cultures is a gut check, a way of forcing ourselves to take a fresh look at our own beliefs about mental health and healing. When we examine our assumptions from a farther shore, we begin to understand how our own culture constantly shapes and sometimes creates the mental illnesses of our time. By setting aside our role as the world's therapist, we may come to accept that we have as much to learn from other cultures' beliefs about the mind as we have to teach.
About the Author
Ethan Watters is a free lance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Discover, Men's Journal, Spin, Details, and Wired. A frequent contributor to NPR, Watters' work appeared in the 2007 and 2008 Best American Science and Nature Writing. He co-founded the San Francisco Writers Grotto, a work space for local artists. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and children.
If you thought McDonald's and strip malls were the ugliest of America's cultural exports, think again. Western ideas about mental illness-from anorexia to post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, general anxiety and clinical depression-as well as Western treatments have been sweeping the globe with alarming speed, argues journalist Watters (Urban Tribes), and are doing far more damage than Big Macs and the Gap. In this well-traveled, deeply reported book, Watters takes readers from Hong Kong to Zanzibar, to Tsunami ravaged Sri Lanka, to illustrate how distinctly American psychological disorders have played in far-off locales, and how Western treatments, from experimental, unproven drugs to talk therapy, have clashed with local customs, understandings and religions. While the book emphasizes anthropological findings at the occasional expense of medical context, and at times skitters into a broad indictment of drug companies and Western science, Watters builds a powerful case. He argues convincingly that cultural differences belie any sort of western template for diagnosing and treating mental illness, and that the rapid spread of American culture threatens our very understanding of the human mind: "We should worry about the loss of diversity in the world's differing conceptions of treatments for mental illness in the same way we worry about the loss of biodiversity in nature."
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Americans may not be any more deranged than anyone else on the planet-but, says pop social scientist Watters (Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment, 2003, etc.), we are much better at universalizing our afflictions. "We are engaged," writes the author, "in the grand project of Americanizing the world's understanding of the human mind." But who is we? There's the rub, for there is a strong cui bono element in the idea that our psychic well-being or lack thereof should be transportable across borders. But first, the evidence, about which Watters writes sympathetically and elegantly, of the rise of Western-style mental illnesses around the world. None of this should be particularly surprising, given the fraught nature of human life, but Watters adds a twist: The very idea of such maladies is often new, introduced from abroad. Thus, even though given the importance Chinese people traditionally place on food, something like "food refusal" should have been a natural form of rebellion, anorexia was rare until recently, when the Western clinical concept entered the Chinese medical literature at the same time the Chinese mass media began to pay attention to rail-thin Western celebrities and models. By Watters's account, when the great Indian Ocean tsunami struck Sri Lanka at Christmas 2004, Western clinicians imported the idea of "the kind of mental abscess that results in PTSD" instead of trying to understand the interpretations of the event in the survivors' own terms. So who benefits? As the author writes, once Big Pharma managed to convince young Japanese that there was such a thing as "depression"-a notion not strictly alien, but bound up in otherterms and with other remedies-then it was able to extract millions of new dollars from an untapped market. Throughout, Watters urges that we be concerned about the losses of native categories of mental health and illness in just the way that we lament the loss of other kinds of diversity. Mental-health professionals should pay attention, and shrewd investors in pharmaceuticals may take interest in Watters's guess as to what disorder is likely to be big in the near future. Agent: Chris Calhoun/Sterling Lord Literistic
""Crazy Like Us" is both groundbreaking and shocking...Whether Watters' book will be sand in the engines of the bulldozers remains to be seen. At least it proves the West, despite its best intentions, does not possess all the answers."--"The Boston Globe"
Published: 1st January 2010
Dimensions (cm): 23.1 x 15.2 x 3.3
Weight (kg): 0.476