Hey there ! I hope you guys are staying safe during these trying times. I’m back with a new post ! This was a paper I wrote for one of my anthropology courses at UofT – Medical Anthropology: Illness and Healing in Cultural Perspective. This paper looks at my medical diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder through an anthropological lens. So, grab a cup of tea and read 🙂
Written By: Archana Baleswaran
Mental illness continues to raise issues of stigma whether it be in a public sphere or even a private one. Particularly in the South Asian community, the topic of mental illness remains a taboo. My family growing up never spoke about mental illness or even mental health for that matter. In my culture, above all, reputation and how you present yourself to the world is of utmost importance. However, my parents would soon have to come to terms with the state of my mental health and my diagnosis. This paper will be detailing my experience with mental health, the aftermath of diagnosis and will discuss a few themes in medical anthropology – illness, cultural salience, metaphors and agency.
Vacations are meant to be a joyful and relaxing time – but this was not the case for me back in the Summer of 2014. My mom and I were set to stay in Sri Lanka for six weeks. At first, I was quite excited – but eventually, it dawned on me that I would be away from the majority of my support system. During my time in Sri Lanka, though I made many memories, I experienced extreme culture shock. I faced the issue of language barriers, not being able to communicate with my relatives, separation from my support system and a change in scenery. All these factors ended up worsening my mental health and ultimately led to my anxiety.
After returning home, I was still not my true ‘self’, I found myself remaining in bed and isolated myself for the majority of my summer. Eventually, these feelings passed but they reoccurred frequently. During these periods of relapses, I found myself not wanting to do anything – I would miss school. Eventually, with the support and push from my family, I went to see a psychiatrist. She had me fill out a couple of questionnaires and within thirty minutes I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. Due to the severity of my anxiety, my psychiatrist recommended medication as treatment. By seeking help, I was to manage my anxiety and become aware of my common triggers. But after my diagnosis, I still had to come to terms with the stigma around mental illness. I remember my parents telling me not to tell anyone because they thought people would look at me differently. They believed that others will view me as crazy, weak and sensitive. By preventing me from telling others they thought they were protecting me from people’s judgments. Eventually, I came to terms with my diagnosis and now I wear it on my sleeve.
My experience with mental illness can be related back to a few medical anthropology concepts. Firstly, Arthur Kleinman defines illness as the experience of “symptoms and sufferings” from an individual’s perspective (Kleinman,1988, 3). This involves the interpretation and understanding of symptoms by not only the patients but also their family (Kleiman, 1988). In terms of my anxiety – my parents recognized the frequency of my symptoms and decided that action needed to be taken. Some of the symptoms I faced was excessive worrying, trouble falling asleep, and the need to avoid social situations. After getting fed up with suffering in silence, with the help of my family I was able to seek out the proper treatment I needed. Moreover, Kleinman differentiates between the meanings of illness in a few ways – one of which is cultural salience. Cultural salience refers to the ways in which certain conditions are and symptoms are given different meanings and significance. These conditions are either given a positive or negative meaning. An example of cultural salience is stigma (Kleinman,1988). Mental illness is often associated with negative connotations. Through my diagnosis of anxiety, I gained first-hand experience of stigma and the misinterpretations of mental illness. I remember back when I stayed home from school due to my overwhelming anxiety, classmates thought I was faking being ill. I also required a doctor’s note to explain my absence from school. This helps to further explain how issues surrounding mental health are not given the same attention as physical illnesses. Individuals often do not take mental illnesses seriously and think that people are lying to get out of doing something. But this is not true.
In addition, Sontag’s reading discusses, how metaphors influence our understanding of illness. The language used to describe illness reinforce stigmas about certain conditions and illnesses (Sontag, 2001). Complex conditions are referred to in simple terms – this is turn gets used by individuals to depict how they are feeling. Often, anxiety is understood as nervousness and depression as sadness. For instance, many peers of mine use the term anxious on a daily basis to refer to their feelings of nervousness and stress. These metaphorical understandings reinforce ideas that mental illness is simple – thus it leads to poor and ineffective responses from others. Lastly, Briggs concept of agency can be applied to how I dealt with my diagnosis. His concept of agency refers to the ability to act in meaningful ways. This can be further understood as a type of freedom or choice (Briggs, 2004). My diagnosis with generalized anxiety disorder has led me to have to face stigma and brought to light the various ways in which people like me are judged. But my choice to be positive in the face of adversity, has allowed me to wear my diagnosis on my sleeve. In order to help combat the stigma around mental health and spread awareness, I did a Tedx Talk at my high school about my experience with generalized anxiety disorder. By, coming to terms with my diagnosis I was able to not only share my story with my close friends but also my entire high school. Instead of dwelling on my diagnosis, I took matters into my own hands to spread awareness about the importance of mental health.
In conclusion, my diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder can be observed through a medical anthropological lens – through my understanding of illness, cultural salience, metaphors and agency.
A, Kleinman. 1988. Preface; and The Meanings of Symptoms and Disorders. In The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Healing & the Human Condition. USA: Basic Books, pp. xi-xvi; 3-30.
S, Sontag. 2001. Illness as Metaphor. New York: Picador. [Excerpt on Quercus]
C, Briggs. 2004. Theorizing Modernity Conspiratorially: Science, Scale, and the Political Economy of Public Discourse in Explanations of a Cholera Epidemic. American Ethnologist 31(2):164-187.