On Culture: Varying Views of Depression

In the novel I am currently reading,¬†Americanah¬†by Adichie, the main character’s cousin attempts suicide at sixteen years-old. Dike, the son of a Nigerian woman, has been raised in the United States practically his whole life. Being black makes him a minority at his school, and his social identity revolves around the color of his skin. He once told his mother “we black folk” and his Nigerian mother responded “you are not black.” The two have different ideas of what it means to be black in America, but unfortunately Dike’s mother’s response made him feel as though he lacked identity. This made Dike depressed and led him to nearly taking his own life. Fortunately, he survived his suicide attempt, and now I am left wondering how cultural differences in viewing depression affected Dike.

Major depression, more commonly referred to as just ‘depression’ is a mood disorder characterized by feelings of severe despondency and dejection. Currently, it is one of those most studied mental illnesses in the world because there is so much debate over what factors lead to depression. However, studying depression through the western lens of medicine is only one aspect of the disorder. Different cultures around the globe have their own interpretations and explanations for this common affliction.

I am no expert on mental illnesses like depression, and do not necessarily agree with one interpretation over another. I simply want to share different viewpoints for the sake of knowledge, and will keep my own opinions regarding the disease to myself.

East Asian cultures tend to value conforming to the norm, having emotional self-control, and being recognized as a family for achievement. Because of these honor-driven beliefs, mental illnesses like depression are often stigmatized, and this is why East Asia reports the lowest rates of depression in the world. This is even evident in America by studying cases of depression in college students raised in Asian countries. The story of the depressed student shielding his or her symptoms of depression by not reporting them to friends, family, or doctors is all too common. Suffering from depression is unfortunately seen as a burden to to others for some individuals, and would rather fight it alone rather than “rope others into it.” The depression, hid away inside, can manifest itself physically and Asian students in the United States are more likely to visit a clinic for abdominal pain or headaches than for psychological reasons; it is seen as taking the high road.

Though there are hundreds of different Native American tribes with their own respective belief systems, it is a fact that Native Americans in the United States experience mental illnesses like depression a disproportionate amount compared to the rest of the country’s population. This could be a result of inaccurately translating the definitions and perceptions of sadness and depressed behavior from one culture to another, but may more importantly represent the effects of history on a people. Among depression, alcohol abuse, poverty, and incrimination rates are disproportionately higher in Native American communities. So unfortunately, in these cultures, depression is seen as something normal deserving of treatment, but normal.

The Middle East and North Africa experience the highest reported rates of depression in the world, specifically Afghanistan. There are a number of potential factors that could explain the astronomical depression rates in Afghanistan. The main one would be conflict. The United States has had a military presence in Afghanistan for many years, and I am writing this blog one day after Americans dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb in history on Afghanistan. Living in constant fear of attack from a foreign nation from a young age up into adulthood could certainly cause heightened anxiety and depression. We also see incredibly high rates of depression in Afghani women especially. Societal rules dictate that women hold virtue the highest among values. Women are not allowed to leave the house without a male escort, and most cover themselves up in public. Many wives’ lives are dominated by their husbands, often much older, in Afghanistan, and it is not uncommon for women in these situations to become depressed. In sum, conflict, conservative traditions, lack of resources, and lack of freedom most likely contribute most to depression in Afghani women.

Depression is an important topic to discuss not only because of its international prevalence but because of the effects it can have on those who suffer it. Untreated depression can lead to risky behaviors like drug and alcohol abuse with regard for life, as well as an overall dislike for life and all that it has to offer. Each individual person deserves the opportunity to make the most out of the life they have been given, and unfortunately major depression and other mental illnesses can sideline people for weeks, months, or years of their lives. Each life on this planet is worth living, so fighting depression through study and clinical treatment is fighting for life and the human experience itself. And on top of that, no life on this planet is worth ending in a purposeful matter, especially in Dike’s case. Young individuals like him have some of the most to look forward to in life, which is why combating depression internationally via various, culturally specific means is necessary for all. Depression not only impacts those who suffer it directly, but also those who suffer it indirectly, because we are all connected and should care about our fellow man.



On Culture: The Downsides Of Small Talk

“How are you?” “I’m fine, how about you?” “I’m doing quite well, thank you.” “You’re welcome.”

If you come from the United States like myself, more specifically the Midwest, this dialogue up above may appear over a dozen times throughout the day, and it’s not healthy.

As I write this, I can hear rain hitting the kitchen window. It has been raining all day and on top of that, I have not seen the sun for going on two weeks. “In like a lamb, out like a lion” and “April showers bring May flowers” I guess. Despite all of this, when passersby asked me how I was or how I was feeling today, all my Midwestern upbringing could shoot out were “fine” and “well.” My responses were not really an indication of my mood or well-being, rather an indication that my cultural background is similar to that of the person asking me. This is a small cultural reason as to why more and more Americans struggle with mental health issues like depression. As a whole, Americans try and maintain a facade that we are the greatest country in the world, and it only harms ourselves.

In a nation like Germany, the simple act of asking someone in line for coffee or waiting for the elevator, “how are you?” is absurd. If they were to respond to that insincere question at all, they might say, “I’m a bit depressed. It has rained all day and I have not seen the sun in nearly two weeks.” They have no need for a stranger’s consideration; the only people worth asking, “how are you?” are family and loved ones. Small talk only creates expectations and conformity in a society. Humans care more about feeling genuinely cared for rather than being a part of a masquerade.


On Culture: Tipping in America

In the novel I am reading,¬†Americanah, the act of tipping a waiter or waitress is mentioned as an aspect of American culture unfamiliar to the Nigerian protagonist. The act of tipping, giving a server additional payment for their service, is a staple of multiple industries and professions. Tipping at its inception was a way for a customer to acknowledge their server’s hard work, but has unfortunately become the primary source of income for waiters/waitresses, hotel bellmen, bartenders, and valets.

An overwhelming majority of waiters and waitresses in restaurants are paid under the minimum wage by their employers, and make up the rest in tips from customers. In fact, over 80% of a restaurant server’s income comes in the form of tips. The main positive to this dilemma is that tipping is a form of quality assurance; waiters and waitresses feel compelled to perform their job well in order to receive tips. However, the negative sides to this situation far outweigh the positives.

First, companies that hire service workers, like restaurants, taxi cab services, and bars, are able to legally get away with underpaying their employees. Although some waiters may make more annually than a person making minimum wage, they are not guaranteed the same financial security. Second, customers are being ripped off in a sense that they carry the burden of paying a server’s salary as opposed to their employer. Tipping is unjust to both the server and the customer. In fact, the tipping triangle between an employer, a server, and a customer only benefits the employer. Finally, because a large number of service industry jobs with low pay are filled by low-income individuals and immigrants who recently came to America, the cultural “norm” of tipping is a form of oppression to these groups of people. So next time you decide to tip less than fifteen percent, or not at all, consider the impact you just made on another’s livelihood.