Posted on January 24, 2010 - by David
Chapter 3- The Shifting Mask of Schizophrenia in Zanzibar
In the first two chapters of Ethan Watters’ new book, Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, we encounter the idea that differences in source of identity and social integration between cultures may account for differences in the expression, (and prevalence), of mental illness. The third chapter suggests that cultural differences may also explain the rather enigmatic finding that those diagnosed with schizophrenia in the “developing” world seem to fare better than their Western counterparts. I found anthropologist Juli McGruder’s case studies particularly interesting, as they raise the possibility that the cause, or at least trigger, for schizophrenia may lie in cultural conditions.
I think it’s worth noting, as Watters points out, that despite the privileged position science has been given in the study of schizophrenia and all the technological advances of the last few decades, we still know very little about the causes of this strange affliction.
More than any other mental illness in the Western world, this one belonged to the “hard scientists” who looked for the causes in bad genes, biochemistry, and the structure of the brain. The advent of brain scans – allowing a researcher to see into the head of live patients – brought with it a seemingly endless series of theories about the root cause of the illness. Abnormalities supposedly key to schizophrenia have been reported in the frontal cortex, the prefrontal cortex, the basal ganglia, the hippocampus, the thalamus, the cerebellum – and pretty much every other corner of the brain as well. No firm consensus had emerged about the location or cause, but there was wide agreement that the exciting advances in understanding the disease were coming from the laboratories of brain researchers.(134)
In the meantime, there are others like Juli McGruder who, (like sociologist Liah Greenfeld), believes that “culture and social setting play a more complicated role in the disease than simply influencing the content of the delusions.” (136) Scholars on the cultural side of the fence point to the results of two international studies by the World Health Organization. The WHO research, which began in the 1960’s and lasted 25 years, suggests that the severity of schizophrenia is not the same worldwide. Watters summarizes the findings:
What they found was that those diagnosed with schizophrenia living in India, Nigeria, and Colombia often experienced a less severe form of the disease (had longer periods of remission and higher levels of social functioning) than those living in the United States, Denmark, or Taiwan. Whereas over 40 percent of schizophrenics in industrialized nations were judged to be “severely impaired,” only 24 percent of patients in the poorer countries ended up similarly disabled. (137)
Liah Greenfeld believes that anomie, which she considers a built-in feature of modern culture, causes problems with identity formation which often lead to mental illness. In Nationalism and the Mind, she describes this phenomenon and its effects on individuals:
Anomie, commonly translated as “normlessness,” refers to a condition of cultural insufficiency, a systemic problem which reflects inconsistency, or lack of coordination, between various institutional structures, as a result of which they are likely to send contradictory messages to individuals within them. On the psychological level anomie produces a sense of disorientation, of uncertainty as to one’s place in society, and therefore as to one’s identity: of what one is expected to do under the circumstances of one sort or another, of the limits to one’s possible achievement… (14)
The chronic, modern state of anomie may not (yet) be a built-in a feature of Zanzibari culture, but when we use the word “developing” to describe a country or culture, we imply that they are developing into something more like us, i.e moving towards modernity. This process of modernization is necessarily anomic:
Anomie, is, in fact, the ultimate cause of cultural change. It both breaks the old cultural routine and encourages the formation of a new one. The general pattern of human history can be imagined as an alteration between relatively brief and rare periods of widespread (though culturally localized) anomie and cultural routine. Widespread anomie, most commonly implying gross inconsistencies between elements of culture impinging on individual identities, specifically inconsistencies within the system of social stratification which defines a person’s position in the social world in general and vis-à-vis particular others, affects large groups of individuals and expresses itself in social turmoil. (14-15)
I wasn’t surprised, then, to see the title ‘Revolution and Madness’ above the section introducing McGruder’s first case study. Watters describes the state of affairs in the country at the time when Hemed began to experience symptoms of schizophrenia:
After years of being a British colony, Zanzibar embarked on the uncertain path to self-governance. There were three political parties, twenty-two trade unions, and sixteen partisan newspapers stirring up anger and resentment on all sides. Hemed’s first experience of derangement, McGruder believes, was sparked by the social upheaval of the time. (142)
Given what was going on in that moment in the history of Zanzibar, the amount of stress felt by Hemed must have been intense. He was a middle-class man from a high-profile Arab minority at a time of growing racial and class distrust. His curly dark hair and facial features made him identifiably Arab. There seemed to be no safe political refuge. Even the political party he belonged to, the Zanzibar Nationalist Party, was internally split between those who considered themselves African and those of Arab heritage. No one knew whom to trust. (143)
We can also see how conflicting cultural messages may have played a role in the experience of Kimwana, Hemed’s daughter who suffered from the same illness.
She was a happy child even though her early years were turbulent times for the island. Her mother and classmates remember her as the brightest student in the class. Particularly skilled with numbers, she graduated from secondary school and took a job with the Ministry of Finance. This was 1983, a time of rapid change for women on the island. To fill in for the many educated men who had fled the political upheaval, women were beginning to enter the professional workforce by the thousands. (144)
While we in the West would see these new opportunities for women aa a change for the better, there still existed traditional guidelines on behavior which seemed to contradict this elevation in social status. It was only a few months after Kimwana started her new job that she began to hear male voices “gossiping that she was a disloyal and disrespectful daughter and sister” (146). Before the cultural changes which led to an influx of women into the workplace, Kimwana’s identity would have been based primarily on her relationship to her family and in behaving according to the prescriptions of the Islamic religion.
Much of the torment of having these male presences in her head related to Islamic rules of female modesty. While the voices were with her, she felt she must respect the codes of conduct as is she were actually in the presence of a man. At such times she could not bathe or undress and she tried not to go to the bathroom. Although she sometimes found it helpful to argue with the voices when they became critical, her sense of decorum made it difficult to do this out loud. (146-147)
In this section of the chapter, Watters highlights McGruder’s amazement at the ability of Amina, the mother and effectively the head of the household, to care for the large family and its two sick members. Her daily activities seem to far surpass western notions of busyness, and she takes the extra load created by mental illness in stride. This is possible, I believe, because she is secure in her identity in a way that neither Hemed nor her daughter Kimwana could be. She was raised to serve her family and God, and that is what she does. McGruder compares the Western, Christian attitude towards adversity to Amina’s stance and sees an importance difference.
In the cosmology of Western Christians, life’s challenges provide opportunities to become stronger and to have a closer relationship with God. The burdens God sends to Christians in the Western world are incitements to self-improvement. The comforts that Amina found in her religious belief, by contrast, were not in an encouragement to overcome or learn from hardships. Rather, simply accepting her burden was a continuous act of penance. (155)
In other words, the challenge of caring for her sick relatives did not provide a reason to change her identity. Her identity was essentially unchanged since childhood, she was merely to continue behaving and believing as she always knew she should. Unfortunately for her daughter, the conflict between the new cultural value of work for women, and the traditional emphasis on family and religion proved too much for her mind to handle.
The chapter also describes the damage often done by family members’ emotional over-involvement in the lives of their schizophrenic loved ones. This cultural tendency, according to Watters, is closely related to the Western emphasis on individual identity and the belief that individuals should be able to control their own destinies. As in the previous two chapters, the resounding message is that the highly individualistic nature of identity in modern societies and the lack of clear, shared cultural beliefs and practices lead to more widespread and more severe forms of mental illness.
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