Newsletter #461 – Crazy Like Us

Many years ago I gave lectures at Fuller Seminary where one faculty respondent commented that my talks about integrating psychology and Christianity never acknowledged that integration is impacted by culture. Since then, I have come to realize that views of psychological and political issues, psychopathology, research, or effective treatment methods differ from country to country. American ways of doing therapy, presenting lectures, doing ministry or leading mission trips may not connect with people in other cultures and actually can do harm when we think we are helping. I never go overseas or work cross-culturally without working to understand cultural differences before I go and while I’m there.  Stated bluntly, the American (Canadian, British, Australian, or other country’s) world-views or therapies are not always universally applicable or the best for other cultures.

Recently I read Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche by journalist Ethan Watters. In prose that reads like a novel but is carefully documented, Watters shows how Americans have exported our ways of viewing mental illness and our methods of treatment.  It is rare that a book enlightens, amazes and angers me all at the same time but that was my reaction to Watters’ writing. He describes how Western views and treatments of anorexia, PTSD, schizophrenia and depression have been transmitted and sometimes forced on to other cultures. This has been done with the help of media reporters and drug companies, often backed by mental health professionals, researchers, and even church leaders.

There are two (often more) sides to every story. I am searching for reviews and objective critiques of this book that may present a different story. But I come away more than ever convinced that cultural perspectives influence a lot of what we teach and how help is given, interpreted and received. My international students understand this; often their professors do not.

Please comment, especially if you have read the book. If you’ve seen critiques of this book can you pass them on? To what extent do the conclusions and methods developed in your culture fail to apply cross-culturally? Do our cultural biases and insensitivities lead us into doing more harm than good?


    1. Bruce, What interested me was the comments I got from people who disagree with what I posted. This may be my bias (probably is) but these seem to come from people who have not had much exposure or professional practice with people who are not Americans. Is this fair?


  1. I live cross-culturally and would agree. I just requested the book from the library (I’m in the US for the month) and look forward to reading it. Thanks for the recommendation!


  2. This is absolutely right Gary. The subject was brought to my attention while I was being coached in counselling. The truth is the western culture has been forced to many cultures especially down here in Africa on the fact that we depend on the westerns for information. Take a look at the christian gospel, we have been taught that the only acceptable and correct way of worship/fellowship is calmness and by that you can tap into his presence. However, this idea obscure our energetic style of worship which I believe is what touches Him by us. I have since being challenged to study with carefulness and always view any information from the African perspective


    1. Tebogo, I like your observations from Africa. After so many trips I am an enriched man -grateful for it. Nevertheless, despite my efforts to do otherwise, I wonder how many of my talks have been too Americanized to be relevant in other countries.


      1. Gary I think that it all lies with the student more than it does with the teacher. The one aspect I’ve learned is that if someone speaks from a different perspective, what I should do on my part is to view their statements from the local perspective. Even in my country of South Africa there are a number of cultures that all at some stages differ hugely. So the best thing is “Know your market”. Everything that I learn is based on the sort of market I have

  3. I had the opportunity to develop study abroad opportunities around the world in my previous employment. I quickly learned that other cultures were often not wrong, just different. Two critically helpful books to my work were: “Ministering Cross-Culturally” by Sherwood G. Lingenfelter and Marvin K. Mayers, and “The Art of Crossing Cultures” by Craig Storti. Not long reads, but very helpful. And then there are country specific books like, “Encountering the Chinese” by Hu Wenzhong and Cornelius Grove, and “From Nyet to Da…Understanding the Russians by Yale Richmond. A littler research goes a long way…Rich


    1. Rich,thanks for your recommendations. Among other books, in my doctoral course on global leadership I assign Cross-Cultural Connections (Elmer), Leading Cross-Culturally (Lingenfelder), The Cultural Intelligence Difference (Livermore), and When Helping Hurts (Corbett and Fikkert). I considered Leading Cross Culturally (Plueddemann) but I felt this otherwise innovative book got boggwd down in the theoretical stuff at the end.


  4. I have not read the book. From your summary of the main thoughts, my impression is that you can fall off the horse on either side: Either totally ignore cultural factors or make it all about culture. As someone who has lived and worked cross-culturally for over 20 years, the last 10 as a counselor, my experience has been that people bring the same issues, whether they are from Western or Eastern cultures. They may present them differently and we may look for different solutions, depending on their context, but I have not noticed great difference based on culture. In the end, they do not experience distress BECAUSE it has been labeled by a Western diagnostic system. The diagnosis just represents a common language with which to discuss the issue. It seems to me that our Western diagnostic system gives those who suffer psychological distress an additional (or for some a first-time) language to describe their distress and its etiology. I am working with a Syrian woman right now who is suffering from severe PTSD due to chronic abuse. She is finding it hugely helpful to have a way to describe her experience and connect with others all over the world via internet chat rooms. I feel there is nothing wrong with finding a language that allows people to connect, even if that language is the DSM-IV diagnostic manual. The rest of the world chooses to connect in English via Facebook. Why not via DSM-IV in depression and PTSD chatrooms? I am perfectly happy to use another language — as long as it helps me communicate with as many people from as many backgrounds as possible. Maybe I’m naive, but there you have it.


    1. Gabriele, I am glad for your perspective. It would be interesting to hear your perspective if you had time to read the Crazy Like Us book. I realize this too may be one extreme – on one side of the horse, but the further I read I concluded that all of this is more than agreeing to a common language. I don’t think psychopathology is all the same from country to country.


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