There’s a growing interest in the idea that mental illnesses are cultural products – insanity brought about by wind was a big problem in 19th century France, before mysteriously disappearing almost overnight. Conversely, depression was practically unknown in Hong Kong before the arrival of Western media.
Mental illness anthropology is a fascinating topic – even more so when the observer is not from the West, and studies our strange phenomena. Dr Somé was born into an African shamanic tradition, and took a tour of a US mental institution to see how the West treated a sick friend during a visit.
“I was so shocked. That was the first time I was brought face to face with what is done here to people exhibiting the same symptoms I’ve seen in my village.” What struck Dr. Somé was that the attention given to such symptoms was based on pathology, on the idea that the condition is something that needs to stop. This was in complete opposition to the way his culture views such a situation. As he looked around the stark ward at the patients, some in straitjackets, some zoned out on medications, others screaming, he observed to himself, “So this is how the healers who are attempting to be born are treated in this culture. What a loss! What a loss that a person who is finally being aligned with a power from the other world is just being wasted.”
Dr Somé has been involved with bringing Americans to Africa for healing (a similar shamanic approach has been used in Mongolia to treat severe autism in American children.)
“People think something extraordinary must be done in an extraordinary situation like this,” he says. “That’s not usually the case. Sometimes it is as simple as carrying a stone.”