Cultural Differences: How Culture can affect Mental Health

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Cultural Differences:  How Culture Can Affect Mental Health




Guest:  Dr. Stephen McLeod-Bryant – Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences

Host:  Dr. Linda Austin – Psychiatry


Dr. Linda Austin:  I’m Dr. Linda Austin.  I’m talking, today, with Dr. Stephen McLeod-Bryant, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina.  Dr. McLeod-Bryant, one of your strong areas of interest has been the impact of culture on the human brain and on psychiatric illness, the development of psychiatric illness.  You also have a very strong interest in ethnic and racial diversity.  And yet the one thing that we, in this country, share is we’re Americans.  And there are specifically American cultural forces that are different than, say, what goes on in Ghana or Kenya or Mexico or Japan.  What are some of the cultural issues that we face in America that have a distinctive impact on psychiatric illness?


Dr. Stephen McLeod-Bryant:  I think there are a number of factors.  And it may not be fair to specifically label America as a problem per se.  But some of those factors are consumerism, if you will, of modern society and, at least, the perceived need of having to have and how, through the commercials that we all see on the TV or the little pop-ups that come on the internet and so forth, there is an attempt to try to develop a sense of need of things that one has to pay for.  Typically one has to have a certain amount of resources to acquire, whereas in other societies, in less developed societies, that sort of pressure, if you will, to have, may not be as extreme; it may not be as pervasive.  So, one doesn’t get the same sense of

wanting, of being inadequate because you don’t have the brand new flashy gizmo that your next-door neighbor has.


Dr. Linda Austin:  So, we are somewhat of an envy-driven culture then?


Dr. Stephen McLeod-Bryant:  I think that’s a way of putting it.  Another factor that seems to be of concern is that our society is a much more individualistic society, where individual pursuits of happiness, of liberty and so forth are a very high value here, whereas in other societies, it’s more the communal good.  And so people are more willing to, perhaps, serve their fellow person as opposed to feeling upset that their particular ideas are not pre-eminent amongst the group.


Dr. Linda Austin:  We see that with the migrant population who, when they earn money, talk about sending it back to wherever they came from.  They’re sending it back to their sisters or their mothers, or whatever.


Dr. Stephen McLeod-Bryant:  Right.  Or, the people who don’t understand that particular culture will just look aghast at the number of people living in one particular room or small home, and they’re just thinking it’s awful and whatnot, whereas, for the individuals who are participating in that, they see it as being a way of surviving and thriving and building their community.  It’s not this concern about having one’s own space as much as we have in our society.


Dr. Linda Austin:  And even that has really changed over the years.  When I was a child, it was no big deal to have a family home with one bathroom.  Now you never see a house, hardly, in middleclass suburbia with just one bathroom.


Dr. Stephen McLeod-Bryant:  Of course.  And they’re all full baths and there are multiple bedrooms and so forth in the same home.  So, I think that’s a force that, in our culture, sort of drives America forward in terms of its economy and so forth.  But it clashes with the values of folks coming from other societies and other cultures.  And that disconnect as someone is trying to grab a foothold here in America and trying to succeed, that clash between one’s own values and the values of America, that process of assimilating and acculturating can be a very difficult one.  Some folks make it and then some folks, they may return to former cultures. 


It’s one of the things we see in a lot of big cities, sort of that notion of having an enclave, a “ghetto”, or a, you know, a neighborhood where one is able to speak one’s own language, to hold onto one’s own values, one’s acts of faith and so forth, as a way of surviving, of not totally becoming lost in this foreign culture that is America to many people who are immigrating here.


Dr. Linda Austin:  As you’re speaking, I’m thinking, well, we are human beings. Human beings are mammals and we are primates.  And there are certain laws of biology about what causes stress, and stress hormones, to primates and to mammals.  If you think about isolation, the isolation that may come from a highly individuated, individually, driven culture, why might that take a toll on mental health?


Dr. Stephen McLeod-Bryant:  Well, it seems to be the case that we, as mammals, as primates, developed or evolved over time to be social beings.  That part of our sustenance is based on our connecting with other human beings and getting reactions from other human beings.  Part of our being healthy is having a sort of mirroring presence from other human beings, to let us know that we’re more or less on par with what’s normal human behavior.  If we’re left to our own devices, we can go off into tangents and directions that are just not healthy.  But by being social, by relating to one another, whether it’s family, friends, other folks that we connect with, it helps ground us, and I think it helps us to sort of modulate, perhaps, more extreme emotions, feelings, thoughts that may occur.


I think of the example of a person who is psychotic, who’s out on a city street corner, and is just sort of shouting at the top of their lungs.  Well, a lot of folks, you know, they get kind of a little leary and they try to ignore them and walk by them real quickly and this person keeps shouting at the top of their lungs, whereas if somebody were to say to them, are you talking to me, there’s a reaction there because they may not have been aware that they were talking to unseen others.  But, having that human connection can sometimes help ground them and make them realize that, I’m not behaving quite the way I should be out here on a city street.


Dr. Linda Austin:  How do you think that the emphasis on the possession of stuff, of things, how does that impact mental health?


Dr. Stephen McLeod-Bryant:  Well, to the extent that possessing a thing is correlated with being happy or successful, that sort of thing, that tie being made in commercials all the time, that substitute of the thing for the less tangible things that actually do, generally, give long-lasting happiness and peace, and all that sort of thing, the greater that those sorts of material goods are substituted for that, and the more one buys into having those material goods, as a way to fill up the emptiness inside, I think, is a vicious cycle to remaining empty.  All material things, they break down.  They fade away.  There’s a new, greater, better gizmo that you have to get out there.  They don’t give that lasting happiness that having a soul mate or faith in God, those sorts of things, which are much more lasting, that can give one a better sense of mental health.


Dr. Linda Austin:  You get a bit of a high as long as it’s new.  But nothing stays new forever.


Dr. Stephen McLeod-Bryant:  That’s right.


Dr. Linda Austin:  Dr. McLeod-Bryant, thank you so much for talking with us today.


Dr. Stephen McLeod-Bryant:  Thank you, Linda.

If you have any questions about the services or programs offered at the Medical University of South Carolina or if you would like to schedule an appointment with one of our physicians, please call MUSC Health Connection:  (843) 792-1414.




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