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Ethan Watters: Mental Health and the Importance of Two-Way Narratives

Ethan Watters: Mental Health and the Importance of Two-Way Narratives

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Hear full audio from Ethan Watters' keynote speech, and if you get to the end of his hour-long talk you can hear the "top ten list of things to know before going on The Daily Show." (1:18:06)

Ethan Watters
The human mind learns to express suffering differently in different cultures and at different points in time.

"The forms of madness from one place to another often look dramatically different," says Ethan Watters.

But those remarkable differences are disappearing, Watters argues, in the face of America's disease categorization and protocols -- which are homogenizing the way the rest of the world treats and experiences mental illness.

Watters is the author of Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, and the keynote speaker for the second seminar of the California Health Journalism Fellowships. His talk began with the story of a professor, a drug company and an anti-depressant. In 2000, GlaxoSmithKline brought Dr. Laurence Kiramayer of McGill University to Kyoto to discuss "Transcultural Issues in Depression and Anxiety," even though the Japanese have long held that deep sadness is not actually an illness. Watters' startling realization was this: "They wanted to learn not only how to market a drug, but how to market a disease."

The marketing of Paxil in Japan, and  ultimately depression itself, became one of the examples that Watters wrote about in his book. He also offers narratives about anorexia in Hong Kong, post traumatic stress disorder in Sri Lanka, and schizophrenia in Zanzibar. Culture matters, he says, and American interventions sometimes "look a little absurd," much the way someone from Mozambique would be received if they preached tribal rituals to people who had been traumatized by Hurricane Katrina.

"It is only by looking at ourselves through other cultures that we are able to see culture's impact on us," Watters said. This is especially important for journalists who need fresh perspectives when covering mental health issues, and an awareness of the influence they wield in shaping public awareness and expressions of mental distress. An article describing the progression of  anorexia, for instance, may inadvertently serve as a guide book of sorts for a vulnerable teen. Watters also encourages a healthy skepticism in assuming that American experts know the best ways to heal mental illness -- especially in countries or cultures that have traditions of healing that speak to local communities in more effective ways.

Several of the fellows this year are working on projects related to mental health. Paul Kleyman wrote about elderly immigrants' struggles with depression. Jennifer Biddle is working on a video piece about teen suicide in the San Francisco Bay Area. "So much of what Watters said resonates with what we're discovering," says Biddle. Native American cultural remedies, for example, often work better for Native American youth than medical interventions.

Fellows will have a hands-on session exploring multimedia story telling, hear about a social-media-meets-documentary-film project, visit one the nation's busiest emergency rooms, and learn about mental health issues in immigrant communities in Southern California. We'll post more through the weekend here at The Fellowships Blog and you can follow the rest of the seminar in real time on Twitter, hashtag #uschealthj.

Related Post: Brains around the World: New Thinking on Mental Health Disparities

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