An Anthropological Take on My Diagnosis

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.

Canadian Youth and Anxiety

Mental Illness is one of the leading causes of illness worldwide. Yet many fail to access these resources due to both systemic and personal reasons. It also does not help that individuals continually have to face stigma and discrimination. This was a paper I wrote for one of my health studies courses at UofT – social determinants of health.

Written by: Archana Baleswaran


Mental illness among Canadians is common. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Canada reports that every year 1 in 5 individuals suffers from a mental illness (Mental Illness, n.d.). Mental illness particularly affects the lives of youth in Canada. As it was reported that “70% of mental health problems have their onset during childhood or adolescence” (Mental Illness, n.d.). Anxiety is one of the most common mental illnesses in Canada. According to statistics from 2009, approximately five percent of “youth were diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.” (Anxiety and Youth, n.d.). Though, it is important to note that many adolescents may be facing the adverse effects of anxiety disorders without being diagnosed – these numbers would be higher if this was taken into account. Youth anxiety is not only a burden on these individuals but also their family and peers. Furthermore, mental illness can lead individuals to die earlier than the rest of the Canadian population as it can “cut 10 to 20 years” from one’s life expectancy (Mental Illness, n.d.). Youth facing mental health issues are also known for their higher rates of suicide as these individuals are constantly having to face the stigma around mental illness. Teen anxiety is an issue in society as not getting the proper help from medical professionals can lead to them developing other disorders like mood disorders and eating disorders. The prevalence of anxiety in Canadian youth is majorly due to the lack of social support and poor coping strategies which in turn influences their health. 

Evidence on Social Support Networks 

Social support networks are one of the core social determinants of health which can adversely affect the health of individuals. The lack of these networks can lead to social exclusion and isolation. Individuals who are excluded do not feel like they belong in the society they live in and feel like they are mistreated by society. Social exclusion can be a result of racism, discrimination and even stigmatisation. Youth who suffer from mental illness are often facing stigma from those surrounding them even their peers. These individuals are often stereotyped as being dangerous, crazy and even reckless when this is not the case. With individuals in society constantly judging them, youth often feel like they deserve the mistreatment. Furthermore, youth facing anxiety are often left with no social support from peers and sometimes even family members. Therefore, it is evident that the stigma surrounding mental illness, in general, is a larger structural root cause of anxiety in teens.  

There is a significant amount of evidence supporting the view that social support can influence one’s mental health specifically causing anxiety in Canadian youth. Several studies have found that social support can minimize depression as well as decrease anxiety levels. A cross-sectional study on children and youth done by Kim employed a survey to all participants. In which they found that teen had received the lowest amount of social support among all participants which may have been a result of social stigma as well as the fact that they may lack connectivity to their peers (Kim,, 2017). In addition, the study by Romans, found that individuals living in an urban area reported having a weaker sense of belonging and lower social support resulting in higher rates of depression and anxiety (Romans,, 2010). Furthermore, a study done in Norway concluded the same results. The study done by Myklestad found that “social support from friends was the strongest protective factors against symptoms of anxiety and depression in adolescents” (Myklestad,, 2011). This proves that the stronger ones social cohesion to both family and friends equals the lower risk of individuals developing anxiety (Myklestad,, 2011). 

All the studies mentioned above. employ the social model of health to describe the effects of social support networks on the development of anxiety in teenagers. This was effective in helping to understand the adverse effects weak support systems can have on one’s mental health. One limitation of these studies is that they do not touch on other factors that could result in low social cohesion such as gender, or even the environments they live in. Moving forward, researchers can further improve their work by considering the how lack of social cohesion influences particularly anxiety. This will allow for comparison of the effects with other illnesses like depression as, there are currently many articles focusing primarily on depression. 

An action taken in Canada to help combat the stigma of mental illnesses is Opening Minds. Opening Minds is a creation of the Mental Health Commission of Canada which aims to address the stigma individuals face with health care providers, youth, work-force and the media. They have created over 70 programs across Canada to help reduce stigma (Opening Minds, n.d.) 

Evidence on Coping Strategies 

Another social development of health that plays a role in the development of anxiety in Canadian youth is poor coping strategies. When individuals develop good and effective coping strategies one can possibly maintain their mental health. But employing destructive and harmful coping behaviours can lead to one’s mental health worsening. The choices individuals make to prevent illness, cope and improve their life can affect one’s health. Examples of destructive and harmful coping behaviours include, smoking, alcohol abuse and drug use. It is important to note that a larger structural factor is the stigmatization of mental illness as individuals rely on poor coping mechanisms because they are scared to get proper help from professionals due to stigma. 

Research studies conducted in Canada have shown that poor coping strategies can influence anxiety levels and health in general. A study conducted by Leslie found that 50 percent of individuals seeking substance abuse treatment have a mental illness such as depression or anxiety (Leslie, 2008). Another study by Bottorff reported that teenagers used marijuana as a mechanism to cope with “difficult feeling such as depression, anxiety and stress” (Bottorff,, 2009). These individuals who used marijuana were not concerned with the possible health risks of using marijuana to cope such as addiction. The study by Rush concluded that there is an increased amount of individuals who rely on substances such as drugs to cope with mental illness in Canada (Rush, 2008). Moreover, in the study conducted by, Stewart et. al, individuals reported using drugs as a coping mechanism to deal with anxiety and depression (Stewart, 1997). The study conducted by Bolton found that “presence of any anxiety disorder was associated with a 21.9% prevalence of self-medication” (Bolton, 2006). In Norway, the study done by Myklestad et. al found that adolescents self-medicate with drugs and alcohol in hopes of it helping them cope with anxiety and various other mental illnesses (Myklestad,, 2011). Lastly, in the study conducted by Schuckit they concluded that individuals with anxiety disorders tend to rely on alcohol to cope their anxiety – which could be a learnt coping mechanism from watching how family members cope with their own struggles. (Anonymous, 2010). Therefore, it is evident that coping mechanisms play a large role in the progression of anxiety disorders.  

The articles used above framed their research with the social model of health to help explain how coping skills can influence anxiety levels. One limitation these studies have is that they fail to consider other factors that can determine which coping strategies individuals employ such as gender, socioeconomic status or even social supports.  

An action taken in Canada is Mental Illness Awareness Week, which is an annual public education campaign. This campaign aims to help Canadians understand the lived realities of mental illness and the detrimental effects it can have with the lack of support (About Mental, n.d.) 

Policy Solutions  

One policy solution to help Canadian youth deal with anxiety is the creation of programs in which would educate individuals on their mental illness as well as provide different strategies for them to combat their illness. The programs would be aimed at teenagers who are currently using poor coping mechanisms such as the reliance on drugs. In these programs’ individuals would learn coping strategies that are more effective and recommended by mental health professionals. Another policy solution is the creation of more peer support groups. These groups would allow individuals to speak about their problems as well as create meaningful relationships with people who understand what they are going through. This would allow individuals to form relationships which in turn results in them having social support and people they can rely and lean on in times of trouble. These policy solutions would be implemented at the provincial and local level so that individuals across Canada have access to them – this would make it equally accessible to all Canadian citizens. This would also result in greater improvements.  


In conclusion, youth anxiety in Canada is largely caused by social support networks and coping strategies. The lack of social support networks (peers) results in an increase of anxiety in teens as they feel they do not have anyone to lean on. As well as, poor coping strategies can lead to an increase in anxiety as they can have detrimental effects on one’s mental and physical health. More awareness should be brought to prevalence of teen anxiety in Canada as there is not enough attention on the issue currently. Ignoring the mental health issues of Canadians is not beneficial to the population – instead, more action should be taken to help individuals understand and combat this complex issue. 


About Mental Illness Awareness Week. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Alcohol dependence and anxiety disorders: What is the relationship? (1994). American Journal of Psychiatry, 151(12), 1723-1734. doi:10.1176/ajp.151.12.1723

Anxiety and Youth – Anxiety Disorder Association of Ontario. (n.d.). Retrieved from 

Bolton, J., Cox, B., Clara, I., & Sareen, J. (2006). Use of Alcohol and Drugs to Self-Medicate Anxiety Disorders in a Nationally Representative Sample. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 194(11), 818-825. doi:10.1097/01.nmd.0000244481.63148.98

Bottorff, J. L., Johnson, J. L., Moffat, B. M., & Mulvogue, T. (2009). Relief-oriented use of marijuana by teens. Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, 4(1), 7. doi:10.1186/1747-597x-4-7

Frojd, S., Ranta, K., Kaltiala-Heino, R., & Marttunen, M. (2011). Associations of Social Phobia and General Anxiety with Alcohol and Drug Use in A Community Sample of Adolescents. Alcohol and Alcoholism,46(2), 192-199. doi:10.1093/alcalc/agq096

Mental Illness and Addiction: Facts and Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Kim, T. H., Rotondi, M., Connolly, J., & Tamim, H. (2017). Characteristics of Social Support Among Teenage, Optimal Age, and Advanced Age Women in Canada: An Analysis of the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 21(6), 1417-1427. doi:10.1007/s10995-016-2249-9

Leslie, K. (2008). Youth substance use and abuse: Challenges and strategies for identification and intervention. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 178(2), 145-148.doi:10.1503/cmaj.071410

Myklestad, I., Røysamb, E., & Tambs, K. (2011). Risk and protective factors for psychological distress among adolescents: A family study in the Nord-Trøndelag Health Study. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 47(5), 771-782. doi:10.1007/s00127-0110380 x

Opening Minds. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Romans, S., Cohen, M., & Forte, T. (2010). Rates of depression and anxiety in urban and rural Canada. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology,46(7), 567-575.doi:10.1007/s00127-010-0222-2

Rush, B., Urbanoski, K., Bassani, D., Castel, S., Wild, T. C., Strike, C., Kimberley, D., Somers,J. (2008). Prevalence of Co-Occurring Substance Use and other Mental Disorders in the Canadian Population. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 53(12), 800-809.doi:10.1177/070674370805301206

Stewart, S. H., Karp, J., Pihl, R. O., & Peterson, R. A. (1997). Anxiety sensitivity and self-reported reasons for drug use. Journal of Substance Abuse, 9, 223-240. doi:10.1016/s0899-3289(97)90018-3

-XOXO chana