Culturally Defined Disorders

Western medicine describes mental health disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-IV). The DSM-IV also explains culturally defined disorders known as Culture Bound Syndromes. Most Culture Bound Syndromes have symptoms that resemble western defined illnesses, but they also have distinct, culturally specific features. Understanding how different cultures think about mental health and mental illness is critical for all child and family serving systems. Below are some examples of culturally defined disorders that highlight the impact that culture can have on the interpretation of mental health symptoms.

Amok: A term used in Malaysia to describe the condition of a person who dissociates and experiences outbursts of violent, aggressive, or homicidal behavior.

Hwa-byung: A Korean term for a syndrome that results from suppression of anger. Symptoms of Hwa-byung include insomnia, fatigue, panic, dysphoria, and somatic complaints.

Taijin-kyofyusho: Most similar to social phobia in the west, Taijin-kyofyusho is a the Japanese term for a phobia in which an individual fears that parts of his or her body are embarrassing or offensive to others.

Mal de ojo (the evil eye): Commonly described in Mediterranean cultures and expressed through fitful sleep, crying without reason, diarrhea, vomiting, and fever.

Brain fag: This term originated in West Africa and refers to somatic symptoms, difficulties concentrating, remembering, and thinking that students may experience related to challenges in school.

Nervios: Describes symptoms of distress among Latinos characterized by somatic disturbances and fits of uncontrollable shouting, attacks of crying, trembling, verbal/physical aggression, and a general sense of being out of control.

Ghost sickness: A preoccupation with death and the deceased as described by American Indian tribes.

Zar: This term is used in many North African and Middle Eastern countries to refer to an individual who is possessed by spirits. The individual may exhibit dissociative episodes, apathy, withdrawal, or develop a relationship with the spirit.

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