By Angela Li
Culture-bound syndromes are a confusing concept. The actual terminology is inaccurate, as culture bound syndrome has evolved into something that is not truly “bound” to one culture, mainly just non-Western cultures, and the term syndrome can be too all encompassing to be accurate. Most culture-bound syndromes are localized to certain cultures or regions, most often the aforementioned non-West. Broadly speaking, culture-bound syndromes are any sort of diagnoses that recognizes abnormal behavior that is cause for distress. In the Philippines, lanti is the term for when one is sick— be it from a plethora of symptoms such as crying, stomachache, or fever. Being diagnosed with lanti is tantamount to assuming one has been surprised or upset of late. In Peru, the term saladera is given to those assumed to be bewitched and consequently befallen with bad luck. In South Asia, latah is a similar predicament, where one being constantly frightened leads to peculiar, atypical behavior in response to being startled such as copying the actions of others. Mental illnesses are often assigned culture-bound syndrome titles, or certain syndromes have akin qualities to Western designations of mental illnesses (think schizophrenia or depression). However, a patient’s own understanding and perception of their syndrome can affect their symptoms, their experiences, and their behaviors themselves.
One of the major issues combatting culture-bound syndromes is the constant risk of dismissal, due to their uniqueness, a side effect of romanticizing “exotic” cultures. Non-Western cultures are often defined as rooted in traditional thought and therefore in juxtaposition to what are deemed as modern societies; but conceptualizing culture in this way can reinforce the idea of modernity and in this case, medical sciences, as only a trait of the West, reinforcing the idea that the West is obligated to save other cultures. Culture-bound syndromes exemplify that different cultures are not lesser nor less knowledgeable, but are merely different. These diagnoses are thus a good example of the necessity of respecting and acknowledging culture— cultural beliefs, practices, and environment— when treating various illnesses.
About The Global Health Soap Box
This blog evokes the spirit of UC Berkeley -- the home of the Free Speech Movement. The Global Heath Soap Box provides a platform for GlobeMed at Berkeley chapter members to explore and discuss their thoughts on relevant public health issues. Whether it's an expansion on what we discuss in ghUs or a topic of interest--The Global Health Soap Box covers a wide range of topics.