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Depression in different cultures

answered 10:41 PM EST, Wed September 14, 2011
I have an undergraduate psych degree but have never used it for much of anything, but the study of the mind has always interested me. Having lived in a number of Buddhist countries it seems to me that depression is much less of a problem in these countries than it is here back home. I see that mindfulness is now a recommended method for dealing with mental health problems. Is there any research that suggests that certain cultures are better protected against mental illness due to their underlying world-view and philosophy of life?

Ari Hahn Says...

Quite a good question. The answer depends on your perspective. One of the earliest sociological studies was by Emile Durheim in the 19th century that showed that suicide (which correlates very highly with depression) is strongly influenced by culture, although he only looked at various European cultures.

If you were to use the psychological perspective it becomes more complicated. Diagnosis is hard to compare from culture to culture because psychiatric diagnosis is according to symptoms and they can be perceived differently in different cultures. While depression is extremely common in the USA, most of it is not major depression. Major depression seems to be relatively equal across cultures, but the type of depression (dysthymia) that is less serious might not be. I do not know of good research linking this to meditative practices even though meditation is helpful for this type of depression.

There are various other positive exercises besides mindfulness that increase resilience to depression (gratitude, commitment to a greater cause, etc) that would be confounding factors in such research. I suspect that the science of positive psychology needs another 10-20 years to be able to adequately begin to address your question. 

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Page last updated Sep 15, 2011

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