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Answer to Questions #1

Posted on November 3, 2006 in Anthropology Interviews Stigma

I was expecting personal questions when I put out the call and instead I get a sociology/anthropology examination:

Dave asked: Is sanity nothing more than a cultural construct?

Fallen Angels asked: Do our cultural norms define what sanity is and if so, how can that be a real indicator since norms are different in other societies?

square108Round and round the world goes, with its people enthralled to gravity. Culture colors how they see the moon, the sun, and the stars, but they always refer to a physical object when weaving their mythologies. So, too, does it happen when they look at other people. They behold the mentally ill and they know something is different.

Sanity and insanity can be defined along at least three different axes:

  1. The classic legal definition which is represented by this quotation out of Black’s Law Dictionary:
  2. Sanity: Sound understanding; the normal condition of the human mind; the reverse of insanity.

    Insanity: ….a condition which renders the affected person unfit to enjoy liberty of action because of the unreliability of his behavior with concomitant danger to himself and others.

  3. The distinction between mental health and mental illness. I would call this a folk diagnosis because medical professionals normally do not use it unless they are called upon to testify in a trial.
  4. The distinction between people who agree with you and people who don’t. PZ Meyers gave a fine example of this use of the dichotomy in action only recently. It seems very common in religious and political discussions. I count this as a folk diagnosis meaning that there is no real weight to it as a medical diagnosis.

The first is based on tests administered by a court in keeping with laws and precedents. So it is clearly cultural as is the third. The second, though popularly used as a folk diagnosis, does pay more than lip service to the medicine of the brain.

Some societies don’t treat those who suffer from organic brain dysfunctions as we do. The mentally ill may be called shamans or medicine men. It is believed that they have special powers for healing and seeing the other world. In this regard, they receive a better station in life than most of us who suffer from mental illness — except, of course, for certain ad-men and others involved in the creative arts.

Does this mean that they aren’t suffering from organic brain dysfunctions? No. Though in one society, they are called holy and in another deranged, the brain chemistry is the same. What may happen across cultures is that the mentally ill, particularly the bipolar, may find different ways to act out. Among Americans, for example, the bipolar may flout our puritanical ways by engaging in a lot of sex. Elsewhere, different syndromes may mark an illness, such as the fear that many Southeast Asian men have of losing their penises.

Another shared trait of the mentally ill is that they are usually are made to live on the fringes of society. Shamans get to dwell in the woods, away from the main camp. We have built our mental institutions and in many places, including the streets of American cities, the mentally ill are left to wander on their own.

I don’t believe that there’s a magic shift in cultural attitudes when it comes to the mentally ill. People regard us as weird regardless of the station in which they have installed us. They keep their contact with us to a minimum if we show the signs or make the mistake of announcing who we are. And, sadly, they use the fact that our disease exists as an avenue for thrusting venom into conversations. The “sane” don’t want to be like us. And most of us can’t blame them.

Feel free to ask more questions.

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