The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with cultures other than European or Anglophone countries and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (September 2019)
In medicine and medical anthropology, a culture-bound syndrome, culture-specific syndrome, or folk illness is a combination of psychiatric and somatic symptoms that are considered to be a recognizable disease only within a specific society or culture. There are no objective biochemical or structural alterations of body organs or functions, and the disease is not recognized in other cultures. The term culture-bound syndrome was included in the fourth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 1994) which also includes a list of the most common culture-bound conditions (DSM-IV: Appendix I). Counterpart within the framework of ICD-10 (Chapter V) are the culture-specific disorders defined in Annex 2 of the Diagnostic criteria for research.
More broadly, an endemic that can be attributed to certain behavior patterns within a specific culture by suggestion may be referred to as a potential behavioral epidemic. As in the cases of drug use, or alcohol and smoking abuses, transmission can be determined by communal reinforcement and person-to-person interactions. On etiological grounds, it can be difficult to distinguish the causal contribution of culture upon disease from other environmental factors such as toxicity.
A culture-specific syndrome is characterized by:
- categorization as a disease in the culture (i.e., not a voluntary behaviour or false claim);
- widespread familiarity in the culture;
- complete lack of familiarity or misunderstanding of the condition to people in other cultures;
- no objectively demonstrable biochemical or tissue abnormalities (signs);
- the condition is usually recognized and treated by the folk medicine of the culture.
Some culture-specific syndromes involve somatic symptoms (pain or disturbed function of a body part), while others are purely behavioral. Some culture-bound syndromes appear with similar features in several cultures, but with locally specific traits, such as penis panics.
A culture-specific syndrome is not the same as a geographically localized disease with specific, identifiable, causal tissue abnormalities, such as kuru or sleeping sickness, or genetic conditions limited to certain populations. It is possible that a condition originally assumed to be a culture-bound behavioral syndrome is found to have a biological cause; from a medical perspective it would then be redefined into another nosological category.
The American Psychiatric Association states the following:
The term culture-bound syndrome denotes recurrent, locality-specific patterns of aberrant behavior and troubling experience that may or may not be linked to a particular DSM-IV diagnostic category. Many of these patterns are indigenously considered to be "illnesses," or at least afflictions, and most have local names. Although presentations conforming to the major DSM-IV categories can be found throughout the world, the particular symptoms, course, and social response are very often influenced by local cultural factors. In contrast, culture-bound syndromes are generally limited to specific societies or culture areas and are localized, folk, diagnostic categories that frame coherent meanings for certain repetitive, patterned, and troubling sets of experiences and observations.
The term culture-bound syndrome is controversial since it reflects the different opinions of anthropologists and psychiatrists. Anthropologists have a tendency to emphasize the relativistic and culture-specific dimensions of the syndromes, while physicians tend to emphasize the universal and neuropsychological dimensions. Guarnaccia & Rogler (1999) have argued in favor of investigating culture-bound syndromes on their own terms, and believe that the syndromes have enough cultural integrity to be treated as independent objects of research.
Some studies suggest that culture-bound syndromes represent an acceptable way within a specific culture (and cultural context) among certain vulnerable individuals (i.e. an ataque de nervios at a funeral in Puerto Rico) to express distress in the wake of a traumatic experience. A similar manifestation of distress when displaced into a North American medical culture may lead to a very different, even adverse outcome for a given individual and his or her family. The history and etymology of some syndromes such as Brain-Fog Syndrome, have also been reattributed to 19th century Victorian Britain rather than West Africa.
In 2013, the DSM 5, dropped the term culture-bound syndrome, preferring the new name “Cultural Concepts of Distress”.
The fourth edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders classifies the below syndromes as culture-bound syndromes:
The fifth edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders classifies the below syndromes as cultural concepts of distress, a closely related concept:
|Ataque de nervios||Hispanophone, as well as in the Philippines|
|Nervios||Latin America, Latinos in the United States|
|Shenjing shuairuo||Han Chinese|
|Susto||Latinos in the United States; Mexico, Central America and South America|
The 10th revision of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD) classifies the below syndromes as culture-specific disorders:
|Amok||Southeast Asian Austronesians|
|Dhat syndrome (dhātu), shen-kʼuei, jiryan||India; Taiwan|
|Koro, suk yeong, jinjin bemar||Southeast Asia, India, China|
|Latah||Malaysia and Indonesia|
|Nervios, nerfiza, nerves, nevra||Egypt; Greece; northern Europe; Mexico, Central and South America|
|Pa-leng (frigophobia)||Taiwan; Southeast Asia|
|Pibloktoq (Arctic hysteria)||Inuit living within the Arctic Circle|
|Susto, espanto||Mexico, Central and South America|
|Taijin kyofusho, shinkeishitsu (anthropophobia)||Japan|
|Ufufuyane, saka||Kenya; southern Africa (among Bantu, Zulu, and affiliated groups)|
|Uqamairineq||Inuit living within the Arctic Circle|
|Fear of Windigo||Indigenous people of north-east America|
Though "the ethnocentric bias of Euro-American psychiatrists has led to the idea that culture-bound syndromes are confined to non-Western cultures," a prominent example of a Western culture-bound syndrome is anorexia nervosa.
Within the contiguous United States, the consumption of kaolin, a type of clay, has been proposed as a culture-bound syndrome observed in African Americans in the rural south, particularly in areas in which the mining of kaolin is common.
In South Africa, among the Xhosa people, the syndrome of amafufunyana is commonly used to describe those believed to be possessed by demons or other malevolent spirits. Traditional healers in the culture usually perform exorcisms in order to drive off these spirits. Upon investigating the phenomenon, researchers found that many of the people claimed to be affected by the syndrome exhibited the traits and characteristics of schizophrenia.
Some researchers have suggested that both premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and the more severe premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), which have currently unknown physical mechanisms, are Western culture-bound syndromes. However, this is controversial.
Morgellons is a rare self-diagnosed skin condition reported primarily in white populations in the United States. It has been described by a journalist as "a socially transmitted disease over the Internet."
Vegetative-vascular dystonia can be considered an example of somatic condition formally recognised by local medical communities in former Soviet Union countries, but not in Western classification systems. Its umbrella term nature as neurological condition also results in diagnosing neurotic patients as neurological ones, in effect substituting possible psychiatric stigma with culture-bound syndrome disguised as a neurological condition.
Refugee children in Sweden have been known to fall into coma-like states on learning their families will be deported. The condition, known in Swedish as uppgivenhetssyndrom, or resignation syndrome, is believed to only exist among the refugee population in the Scandinavian country, where it has been prevalent since the early part of the 21st century. In a 130-page report on the condition commissioned by the government and published in 2006, a team of psychologists, political scientists, and sociologists hypothesized that it was a culture-bound syndrome.
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