According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately one in four Americans suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder. Our society has gone further than any other in classifying unwanted behaviors and emotions as diseases demanding medical — and often pharmaceutical — treatment.
Emotional distress is highly individualized, and we shouldn’t come to any general conclusions about it. ..
People who have been taught that “mental illnesses are brain diseases” see psychiatric patients as dangerous and unlikely to recover. And those in crisis are often understandably reluctant to consult mental-health professionals, because the stigma of mental illness is so severe: it’s possible to lose your job, your home, and your family as a consequence of being diagnosed with a mental illness. In cultures that take a social view of emotional distress, by contrast, people more readily seek help because they aren’t as likely to be ostracized and are assumed to be capable of full recovery.
The World Health Organization did an international study comparing outcomes for patients diagnosed with schizophrenia in “developed” countries — including the U.S., the United Kingdom, Denmark, and others — and in “developing” countries such as Colombia, Nigeria, and India. To their astonishment, they found that outcomes were much better in the developing countries. As often happens when a study produces unexpected results, the findings weren’t believed at first. So the study was repeated a few years later with a more stringent definition of what constituted improvement for the patients. The results were the same.
Two hypotheses have been put forward to explain these findings. One is that developing countries don’t use medications over the long term because they can’t afford it. Without long-term medication, patients don’t become chronically disabled. The other hypothesis is that people in developing countries are more likely to be cared for at home and be a part of their community, rather than being isolated or sent away to a hospital, and this helps them recover.