It’s Not All In Your Head: How Mental Illness Manifests Across Cultures

by Becca Chong
Staff Writer

Depression affects 350 million people worldwide, It is the leading cause of disability, a major contributor to the global disease burden, and one of the most underfunded areas of healthcare in the world. Even in developed countries like the United States, where there is abundant research and resources dedicated to mental health services, the proportion of people who can access them is comparatively small.

In the United States, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is used to diagnose depressive disorders. There exists an overarching family of disorders, including major depressive disorder, mood dysregulation and even substance-induced depression. The criteria for these disorders are based off of symptoms such as a depressive mood and feelings of hopelessness, reduced interest in daily activities, the inability to sleep, and suicidal ideation. These diagnostic factors are specific to a Western population that has been extensively studied.

However, not all cultures and populations in the world experience mental illness in the same way. Many cultures have different “idioms of distress”; that is, they experience somatization in which psychological distress is often presented as physical symptoms of anxiety. The increased understanding of variations for depressive symptoms has shifted popular belief that depression is “an American affliction” to one that affects people on a global scale.

Take, for example, how depression presents itself in the Chinese population: as a set of physical symptoms that resemble heart disease and other illnesses rather than a psychological manifestation. Neurasthenia is one such example of how psychological distress leads to physiological symptoms such as fatigue, headache, heart palpitations and even high blood pressure.

The reasons for this difference in presentation are thought to be related to the culture-specific values of the Chinese population; the emphasis on interpersonal relations over intrapsychic concerns, the privacy of personal matters, a prevalence of the externalizing coping method, and an emphasis on physical well-being. All this, in addition to the stigma of mental illness, makes admitting to having neurasthenia much easier that admitting to having depression.

Structural factors also sanction the somatization of depression through physical symptoms that resemble neurasthenia. The work-disability system and the ability to claim chronic illness allow for a reprieve from the tedium of work in such way that the somatization of mental illness is beneficial. The history of using illness to withdraw oneself from a dangerous situation, such as the political unrest of the Cultural Revolution, is yet another reason that the category of physical disease is much more socially beneficial than claiming a stigmatized mental illness.

All this is to say that mental illness diagnoses are culturally-mediated and subconsciously constructed to best suit the environment that the people live in; it is a form of evolutionary survival. Western frameworks of mental illness are not completely compatible with other cultures and have implications for designing mental health care services that will be effective and useful for the people they serve. More research is being done worldwide to learn about these cultural differences that will hopefully bring us to a world where mental illness is treated extensively and competently as a physical diseases.

Image by: Internet Archive Book Images


Joyce Sunday
Staff Writer

I will never forget the first time I learned about the scientific magic called recycling. As an African, I have a complete understanding that nothing should ever go to waste and every material should be reused until its “life cycle” is over. When I first moved to the United States, I couldn’t help but see all the blue trash cans which boldly stated “we recycle”. Even more ironic was that even the recyclable bins were made of plastic! Sometimes, the containers listed rules to follow teaching us how to recycle correctly. The moment you did not follow the rules of recycling, some people would look at you like you just committed a heinous blunder. With all this in mind, it is not to say that I am not in support of “going green”. I just think it is time that we understand the true consequences of our unapologetic plastic life with the excuse of recycling. Sometime ago, while I was trying to sell the idea of using reusable water bottles and tote bags rather than disposable plastic water bottles and bags to my friend, she said “Joyce, it is not like I do not recycle. I recycle every plastic that I use, so do not make me feel guilty. I am all for going green in America.” Those words, which echoed in my mind, could only helped me to believe that recycling helps people justify their actions when they use plastics.

According to the American Chemical Association, plastics are synthetic polymers that are made from several smaller molecules known as monomers. Different plastics contain different combinations of around 500 to 20,000 repeating units of monomers made using a polymerization reaction. In the 1950s, after the Second World War, plastics were seen as expensive and classy products only obtainable by the rich. Today, the production cost of plastics have greatly reduced, making them inexpensive commodities available to everyone in some form or another. In America, many products, including our cars, phones, clothes, utensils, homes and medical equipment, are made up of different types of plastic. While there are many good uses of this synthetic polymer, a key disadvantage is the creation of more non-biodegradable waste. In order to tackle this problem, recycling was introduced in society. Recycling promises a “great” alternative for us to use plastics while convincing ourselves that “because we recycle” we are not creating harm to the environment.

The truth, however, is that not all plastics recyclable. Just like molecules, different plastics have different melting points, meaning that they can only be recycled together if they contain the same type of synthetic polymer. According to Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI), there are major classifications of plastics: low density polyethylene found in plastic bags, high-density polyethylene found in milk bottles, polyvinyl chloride found in shower curtains and medical IV bags, polypropylene found in Monobloc chairs, polystyrene found in hard plastics or foam, polyethylene terephthalate found in soda bottles, and polycarbonate found in hard clear plastics. All plastic materials are given an identification code issued by the SPI, in order to determine the type of organic compound used and how to better recycle them. For instance, polyethylene terephthalate has an identification code of 1, high-density polyethylene has a code of 2, poly vinyl chloride has a code of 3, low density polyethylene has a code of 4, polypropylene has a code of 5, and polystyrene has a code of 6. The American Plastics Council (APC) states that about 50% of the communities in the United States have recycling centers for plastics. Although these programs support recycling, some of them only collect certain types of plastics while others get disposed in the landfill. Cleanup organizations report that in most communities, only plastics with identification codes 1, 2 and 3 are recycled. Low density polyethylene (plastic bags) are rarely recycled because they can easily get stuck in the sorting machine, causing it to potentially break down.

Have you ever observed how the cap of the disposable water bottle is thicker that its body? According to the American Chemical Association, lids and bottle caps are not recycled with their significant bottles because they are not made of the same plastic that is used to make the body of the bottle. Another group of synthetic polymer that cannot be recycled is the polystyrene foam. While it is important to you to have that hot coffee in a polystyrene (Styrofoam) cup, always note that it is impossible to recycle it because the recycling process is not economically feasible. According to the cleanup organization, polystyrene can only be made into Styrofoam trays, and to make one tray, many foam cups will have to be used, leading to consumption of more resources and the creation of more pollution.

Another one of the major setbacks to recycling is contamination. When plastics are contaminated by food, cooking oil, and grease, recycling costs are affected as the contaminants have to be washed out before the plastic can be recycled. This can also affect the water usage in the United States, and seeing that California is in a drought, our water can be used for other, more important chores. Sometimes, contaminated plastics can pollute other materials in the recycling bin, which can lead to these materials not getting reprocessed. Disposable nappies and syringes are two other plastic based products which cannot be recycled as a result of contamination and processing costs. According to Good Housekeeping, polycarbonates and polylactides with code number 7 are not consistently recycled because they have a different organic composition from other plastics. Polylactide plastics are made from plants, so they are considered to biodegradable and hence not recycled.

Next time you walk over to a recycling bin to put in your plastic material, always remember that there are hidden rules that recyclable plastics follow, beyond those on the written on the bin. While we pat ourselves on the back every time we recycle, it is important to know that recycling will not completely solve the issue of our dependency on plastics. It is time we pay adequate attention to what we buy, use and recycle. As a consumer, we have the power to change what big corporations are selling. If we make a pledge to gradually switch from being plastic dependent individuals to investing in other non-plastic alternatives, companies will likely invest in the production of strong, reusable containers and plastic free materials. Also, while we are campaigning for recycling and feeling good about it, we should all be campaigners of “stop the plasticity” and “free the plastic” as well.

Image by csatch



Washam, Cynthia. “Plastics Go Green.” American Chemical Association, n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.

The Society Of The Plastics Industry (SPI) Established A Classification System In 1988 To Allow. Different types of plastics and their classification (n.d.): n. pag. Web.

Plastics Recycling. Hartford: Connecticut Dept. of Environmental Protection, 1993. Web.

“What Plastic Recycling Codes Mean.” Good Housekeeping. N.p., 25 Nov. 2008. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

“ Santa Barbara County’s Recycling Resource.” Plastics Recycling. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.


By Joe Armenta and Sophie Desvignes
Senior Editor and Staff Writer

The idea that all politics is local is something that has recently consumed my life. In September, I joined the Nathan Fletcher for Mayor campaign and spent the next three months tirelessly campaigning for a man that I thought would become the next leader of San Diego. Somewhere amid the 12-hour days, the countless phone calls, the negative hit pieces and agitated voters that slammed doors in my face; the electoral process seemed to become remarkably clear. Then I met Sophie Desvignes.

Sophie is a French international student at UCSD and fellow staff-writer here at Prospect Journal. Since joining the team, she and I have continuously discussed the wild and wacky nature of the American political system through the lens of San Diego’s special mayoral election. While these conversations often end in some combination of bewilderment and shame, they have also revealed much about the American voter and how political campaigns function. This joint article will replicate these conversations by highlighting the differences between the French and American political systems.

Joe: I heard that politicians in France don’t talk about their personal life. Is that true?

Sophie: I would not say their private life is completely concealed, but their campaign does not rest on it. When politicians do talk about their personal life, they tend to be immediately reproached with demagoguery. This was the case for Nicolas Sarkozy when he became president in 2008. He lost credibility when pictures and video of him running with Ray Ban sunglasses surrounded by his bodyguards emerged. The press immediately found him a nickname: the “bling-bling” president. Aware of the controversies it raised, Nicolas Sarkozy quickly changed his communication strategy to fit the expectations of French people when it comes to a politician’s private life by keeping his personal affairs out of the public spotlight. For most French politicians, the absence of communication about their private life is part of an accepted political norm.

Joe: That’s strange. In American politics, one of the first thing that a candidate does is to create a narrative about how he got to where he is by talking about his personal upbringing. One of the first things that we campaigned on was the fact that Nathan Fletcher was a Marine Corps veteran, father of two boys and a local businessman. Our literature that we handed out included pictures of him surrounded by his family at a park, and he would regularly post pictures of his kids on his Facebook page. We did this because Americans like to relate to the candidate on a personal level. Voters want to feel as if the personal they’re electing is similar to them. They are turned off by candidates that they feel are too bureaucratic or are deemed to be ‘career politicians.’

Sophie: It tends to be the same in France. People need to identify with the candidate that they are going to elect. However, the type of personal information you describe are rarely provided by the candidate themselves but by the media. The current municipal campaign illustrates that. For example, Nathalie Kosciusco Morizet, the right wing candidate running for mayor in Paris, tries to get closer to people by using public transportation and by addressing all events which affect the city. One of the things all candidates do is to go to farmers’ market to shake peoples’ hands and reach out to potential voters. The other main difference is that French do not directly vote for the mayor. They vote for a group of city councilors who are then going to elect one of themseleves as mayor. Therefore, municipal elections are not so much personalized. Affiliation to a political party is the most important criteria that help people to make a choice.

Joe: American politicians partake in similar tactics for a much different reason. We tend to call this shaking hands and kissing babies. The idea is to make an appearance at public gatherings and community service projects in hopes of gathering media attention. A photo of a candidate serving food to a group of senior citizens reinforces the image that the campaign has already established. But with that being said, a campaign would not waste a politician’s time unless they are certain that potential voters will be present at events. Campaigns in America run on statistics and data mining in order to identify potential supporters and turn them out to vote. This means that the candidate has a bigger incentive to knock on specific doors to talk with high propensity voters rather than appearing at public gatherings where it is uncertain how many supporters he can gather.

Sophie: All this requires a big staff and lot off money; how much is a municipal election campaign?

Joe: It varies depending on the scope of election, what powers are at play and how contentious the candidates are. In the recent special election for Mayor of San Diego, nearly $5 million was raised and spent in less than 90 days to support the top three candidates. Most of the money usually originates from powerful interest groups such as business associations and labor organizations; however, individuals can contribute up to $1,000 to a candidate of their choosing. One of the candidate’s main jobs during the campaign cycle is to attract these donors in hopes of funding such things as advertisements, staff and equipment for the campaign. It should be noted, though, that contrary to common belief, money itself does not decide elections. During the 2010 gubernatorial race in California, Republican candidate Meg Whitman raised $160 million and outspent her Democratic challenger, Jerry Brown, by $6 to $1. She lost by more than 1 million votes.

Sophie: How does all this actually play out in the real world?

Joe: American elections are a lot like wars-while there are several strategies that vary depending on a candidate’s strengths, there are some basic components that are commonplace across all campaigns. On one end, there is the wave of advertisements that air on television or signs that appear on derelict buildings. This is comparable to an aerial bombardment in that it indiscriminately spreads destruction throughout a specific area. In addition to this, there is often a field team that act as ground troops. This team finds and targets specific voters and ensures that they turn out to vote by visiting their homes or calling them throughout the days leading up to the election. Finally, there is a slew of negative campaigning that aim to weaken a candidate’s support. Negative campaigning can be indiscriminate (via T.V. ads) or extremely specific. Mail pieces are designed to target specific households that are deemed to be receptive to a particular message. All of these tactics are nasty and require lots of money to work correctly; and in the middle of all these tactics lay the average American voter trying to go about her life.

Photo by Dom Dada