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.