Depression and Learning From Other Cultures–Part 1

There is an “epidemic” of mental illness across this country and people (including young children) are being diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorders, anxiety disorders and ADHD by the thousands. Individuals are rushing to find remedies; from doctors, gurus, and from diet programs, exercise routines and over the counter pills and tonics.

When you stand in line at the check out counter with that vial of energy supplement grasped in your hand, think about the fact that people in other cultures cope with depression, anxiety and mood swings in very different ways. We can learn from their traditions and their strategies.

The field of cultural anthropology was my focus for many years and I learned that the lived experiences and traditions of other cultures can provide insights and wider perspectives for professionals and lay persons.

We, the majority, view mental health issues through the narrow lens of our own cultural traditions and we have adopted the assumptions that our society promulgates. The assumptions about mental health are as follows:

  • There is a category called “normal” and that it can be described and defined in emotional and behavioral terms.
  • Emotional distress– “mental illness”– is primarily a biologically and brain- based set of illnesses and that diagnostic categories and algorithms lead to effective medications that have been scientifically proven to treat these diseases.
  • Mental illnesses exist as chronic diseases and should be treated as internal disorder and the context (environment and lived experiences) are of secondary importance.
  • Those who are diagnosed with a “mental illness” are not strong or functional individuals who can solve their own problems and cope with stress or understand their own disorders. They require a doctor’s help to recommend treatment.

It is important that we step outside of the boundaries of our own historical assumptions and view mental health through a wide lens. The assumptions mentioned above are oppressive and dictatorial and lead us to consider ourselves “abnormal” if we have feelings and thoughts that do not fit into a “normal” template that has no real definition.

We need to be able to expand our views, to capture our lived experiences in positive terms and take back our freedom of expression.

Within our society, there are minority populations that have not and do not buy into these and other assumptions about mental health.

This article speaks about the African American community specifically because of the author’s own experience base with this community and the reality that their voices should be heard in relation to mental health issues.

Other cultures (Asian/American for example) also have their own perspectives on mental health but have unique qualitative aspects and should be considered separately.

Depression, its “causes” and treatments is a subject of constant debate and depression is, because of its prevalence, a key target for drug companies and their research department.

Recently, a new drug advertised as an “add on” for depression has been developed by Otsuka Pharmaceuticals ( a Japanese company) and the drug is Rexulti, as reported by U S News July 13. It is FDA approved after two, six-week trials with 1,300 people.

A substantial number of individuals who, although they suffer from depression, will not be influenced by the craftsmanship of the advertising for this drug nor will they seek medication at all.

Many individuals in the African American community and especially Black women, who tend to be the spokespersons in this community, view the biologically-based model of mental illness and the medication-based approach as oppressive and abusive.

The issue of depression within the African American community in general has been examined because of concerns about the low participation rate in the mental health system of this population.

Depression and Learning From Other Cultures–Part 1

Margaret Altman, LCSW, MSW

Margaret Altman is a crisis intervention specialist and has intervened in many explosive situations within jails, emergency rooms, suicide prevention centers and psychiatric units. She is a featured writer on the Mad in America website and has more more than 35 years of experience as an LCSW in psychiatry, corrections and private practice. Her book, "Developing Your Child’s Emotional Intelligence" is on Amazon. Margaret currently focuses on issues of minority and marginalized populations in order to give them a voice in the mental health domain.


APA Reference
Altman, M. (2015). Depression and Learning From Other Cultures–Part 1. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 27, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 31 Jul 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 31 Jul 2015
Published on All rights reserved.