Home Featured News Author Ethan Watters: “Cultures should integrate perceptions of mental health”

Author Ethan Watters: “Cultures should integrate perceptions of mental health”

Many issues of mental heath and cultural relevance were covered in the lecture. Countries outside the culture of western societies develop different responses to diseases like depression, PTSD or anorexia.

Over 70 people attended the Grand Rapids Community College Diversity Lecture Series presentation by Ethan Watters at Fountain Street Church Wednesday night.

Watters, 52, is a journalist for magazines such as Spin, Details, and New York Times. He has done extensive research on the way cultures around the world view mental health issues and treatments, which he shared in his presentation.

Watters believes that, rather than push our beliefs of mental illness onto others, we should integrate our perceptions of mental illness with those of other cultures to find a balanced perspective and treatment of the matter.

“Certainly we should share with the rest of the world our medical knowledge, our legitimate advances, biochemistry, biology, or whatever they may be,” Watters said. “But we should also, at the same time, learn what the rest of the world knows about things like social harmony, or connection to the environment. There are cultures that are deeply rooted in these things that we sort of lost a little bit.”

David Flowers, 48, of Grand Rapids is a GRCC alumnus and was at the lecture with his daughter who is now a student.

Flowers agreed with Watters that the idea of mental illness, like other subjects, is greatly influenced by culture, varying with one’s environment, and expressed his thoughts on some of the hindrances that can arise when discussion begins about mental illness between different cultures.

“There are major barriers that we sometimes take for granted in trying to help other people – language, religion, family construct,” Flowers said. “There are a lot of things we have to understand, and take the time to get to know.”

Watters made it clear that through media, medical experts, journalists, celebrities, and major pharmaceutical corporations, Western civilization is changing the way other cultures around the world perceive mental illness.

Paige Jackson, 17, is a student at GRCC, and attended tonight’s lecture.

“The media contains a large perception of mental illness, like how we interact with it,” Jackson said. “I think people in my generation are relating to mental illnesses a lot more, and we’re trying to identify with them a lot more. Understanding the concept that mental health is shaped by your culture and environment, rather than just scientific research is interesting.”

Watters explained the push that was given to change the way the entire population of people in Japan thought about depression, and the use of Paxil to treat it. While the widespread use of the antidepressant helped in some ways, including a drop in the Japanese suicide rate, the tactics used and motives of the pharmaceutical company and Japanese government to get the drug to consumers could become a question of ethics.

“They (Japan) took a culture that rarely diagnosed depression, rarely prescribed antibiotics, and within five years they had this market,” Watters said. “I forget how much it was worth exactly, but a market worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and they were doing it purposely.”

Watters went on to say that he felt that the people in charge of the major pharmaceutical companies, like the suppliers of Paxil, do purposely change the public perception about disease and treatments, but not necessarily with negative intent.

Watters wasn’t all serious. He shared his experience from ”The Daily Show, with John Stewart,” and revealed that he had received a gift basket, containing a couple bottles of liquor, and a monopoly game board, a t-shirt, hat, and “one gift certificate to get a photographic portrait of your pet in case you are ever traveling in New York with your dog.”

The esteemed journalist also wrote a “Top 10 Things To Know Before Going On The Daily Show,” and read it at the end of his presentation, to lighten the mood.

Using examples from history, Watters was able to point out that diseases such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have always been around. PTSD, he explained may not have a specific set of symptoms, and has only gone by that name for the last couple decades. He said during each of the wars, going back as far as the civil war, symptoms were present, although different, but the name of the disease continually changed over time as well.

PTSD has evolved into what it is today, and there are stigmas there too. While it is true that military members have high potential for this disease, and are the face of PTSD in our country, they are clearly not the only ones who suffer from it. Anyone directly involved in a traumatic situation can suffer from this disease.

These types of stigmas can hinder our perspectives and close our minds to others who may be suffering, and we may close ourselves off to them.

“Our mistake is that our notions, our thinking that our symptoms are the only ones to look at, and our treatments, which mostly involve individuals and counseling are the ones that will help everyone,” said Watters. “Those two things just simply aren’t true if you look across cultures.”

Watters said that where we have individualized mental health in our countries, others haven’t, and this is a problem.

“It is with little appreciation for these differences that we continue our efforts to convince the rest of the world to think like us,” said Watters. “Given the level of contentment, and our psychological health our cultural beliefs have brought us, I think it’s time we rethink that generosity.”

Watters wants people to understand that how we initiate conversation about subjects such as mental illness can impact the viewpoint of the other person, and how they will perceive us. This doesn’t just extend to mental illness, but all areas of life.

“Here’s something to think about. So if we were going to tell stories about America, what would be the stories we would tell?” asked Watters. “How would we tell a story about us all being connected? What would that story sound like?”


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