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COLUMN: Culture effect ideas and language surrounding mental illness



“To be or not to be clinically depressed.”

When I read Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in high school, I could relate to the tragedy easily. Hamlet’s mood swings and introspection helped me understand my teenage angst and anxiety.

We might think Hamlet had mental issues. Hamlet’s negative beliefs, pessimism and obsessive guilt could be seen as signs of depression.

In Shakespeare’s time, there was no such thing as “depression.” Hamlet’s behavior would have been called “melancholy.” And melancholy was a “character defect,” not a mental illness, according to an article, “Depressive illness delayed Hamlet’s 
revenge,” by A. B. Shaw.

But, if “Hamlet” was written today, would we have called him mentally ill? Just as we might think Hamlet was depressed by today’s standards, we should remember the role our culture plays in mental illness.

Mental health is an increasingly important issue. The World Health Organization estimates “mental disorders will have become the world’s largest cause of death and disability by 2020.”

Some criticize the field of psychiatry for being scientifically backward. But far more insidious is the cultural deafness. Many of us have forgotten the role culture plays in mental health, because we have tried to only use science to explain mental health, as explained in the www.psmag.com article, “The problem with psychiatry, the ‘DSM,’ and the way we study mental illness,” published in 2013.

We should remember the symptoms of mental illnesses are not only scientific issues but also a language through which we express ourselves.

Maybe mental illness is not a harmful defect we shun and more a way we understand who we are. Seen this way, the mental issues we face are less of biological flaws and more of ways we express ourselves in society.

We need to remember how the culture of our society influences mental health. If mental health is the language of our own bodies, mental illness is how we express the cultural attitudes of society.

Through shifts in cultural attitudes of history, we have also categorized mental illnesses differently. What we might have called anxiety in the 1970s might have been depression through the 1980s and 1990s or even ADHD in the 21st century. These changes show mental illness is a rhetoric about who we are.

Shakespeare would call “depression” and “melancholy” the same thing. And, if “Hamlet” was written today, it might be a psychiatric study, not a tragedy. Shakespeare might be dead, but the experience, emotion and value is still the same. We’ve always been the same, real human beings.

Some who suffer from depression might express self-reflection, compassion and, on occasion, apathy. Others might champion depression as a side-product of extensive reasoning. Whatever we choose to say, we need to pay attention to the cultural language of mental illness. All the world’s a stage, and all the mentally ill merely players.

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