Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"Mental Downturn: Identifying the Symptoms of Economic Uncertainty"

"Mental Downturn:
Identifying the Symptoms of Economic Uncertainty"
By Ethan Watters

"Almost as soon as the economic meltdown began, the ominous warnings started. “Suicides: Watching for a Recession Spike,” read a February 2009 headline in "Time" magazine. Around the same time, "USA Today" reported, “Signs abound that the battered economy is causing serious damage to the mental health and family lives of a growing number of Americans … Nearly half of Americans said they were more stressed than a year ago, and about one-third rated their stress level as extreme in surveys conducted by the American Psychological Association.”

Then there was this front-page headline in "The New York Times:" “Recession Anxiety Seeps into Everyday Lives.” Quoting experts and individuals, the article listed a variety of mental health symptoms sparked by financial worries. These ranged from the mundane (sleeplessness, anxiety, constant worrying) to the alarming (breathing problems, rapid heart rate) to the bizarre (chills, choking sensations, numbness and tingling in the fingers).

Such a wide-ranging list suggests that we are in the midst of creating what Canadian medical historian Edward Shorter calls a symptom pool for our economic uncertainty: We are debating as a culture which symptoms and feelings we will collectively recognize as legitimate expressions of distress over this particular problem. The idea is that, while our mental issues are totally real, they are often diffuse and hard to explain. So, as we strive to communicate our internal pain, we’re drawn toward describing symptoms that are culturally legitimized. Our unconscious minds, in short, are quick to learn the language of suffering for our given time and place, even if that means adopting symptoms we didn’t notice earlier.

This phenomenon is not new. Researchers have documented that women at the turn of the 20th century commonly reported a specific set of symptoms, including leg paralysis, temporary blindness, and facial tics. These symptoms happened to fit the accepted definition of hysteria. “Patients unconsciously endeavor to produce symptoms that will correspond to the medical diagnostics of the time,” Shorter explains. “This sort of cultural molding of the unconscious happens imperceptibly and follows a large number of cultural cues that patients simply are not aware of.” More recently, an Americanized conception of depression caught hold and began spreading virally in Japan during that country’s lengthy and painful recession in the 1990s.

Once a symptom pool is agreed on, a new disorder is usually not far behind. And that seems to be where we are now: The American Psychiatric Association is currently deciding on additions and deletions to its influential diagnostic manual, the DSM-V. As if to demonstrate that creating categories of mental illness remains as much a social and cultural endeavor as a scientific process, the APA is soliciting public input. On the DSM-V Web site, you can “submit suggestions for a new disorder to be considered for addition to DSM-V.”

So what will we call our new, collective, global economic anxiety? The current front-runner is “posttraumatic embitterment disorder.” PTED, which has recently shown up in the psych literature, describes the reaction to a negative but not life-threatening event, such as workplace conflict, sudden unemployment, loss of social status, or separation from one’s social group. If PTED can get enough allies in the right DSM-V work groups — and perhaps a pharmaceutical giant to promote a drug treatment — the nascent disorder has a shot at superstardom. It seems well suited to describe many of the reactions to the precipitous cultural changes unfolding in this time of globalization and economic crisis.

Indeed, the disorder was first “discovered” among East Germans who had become unmoored, unemployed, and insecure in the social upheaval following the fall of the Berlin Wall. We’re all Berliners now. Given that we brought the world the recent economic crisis, the least we can do is offer a symptom pool by which people can learn to express their misery."
Ethan Watters (ethanw1@mindspring.com) is the author of the new book
"Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche."
- http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/01/st_essay/

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