Diagnosing the World’s Data

Journalists are still keen to prod the soft spot of their readers' insecurities around mental illness, with the fear mongering undertone of 'it could happen to you.'

mage credit Julien Lagarde via Flickr (CC).

The previously self-elected spokesperson for the world’s “most and least racially tolerant countries,” The Washington Post‘s Max Fisher and his touch-typing team of Google searching researchers and writers, have now turned their attention to diagnosing the world’s mental health. Scouring the infinite chasm of the internet’s published research they present their data-led stories with a photoshopped artificial gloss. The conveniently social media friendly article written by Caitlin Dewey, is easily shared, generating web traffic for the website and its advertisers. At a time when mental health stigma is slowly beginning to be eroded and challenged around the world, it appears that journalists are still keen to seize the opportunity to prod the soft spot of its readers interests and insecurities, with the fear mongering undertone of ‘it could happen to you’.

Presented with a map — credited to Max Fisher — generated from an Australian study which sought to quantify the ‘prevalence, incidence, remission rates and duration’ of a major depressive disorder (MDD). This being a clinical depression defined by the Western dogmatic canon of diagnosing mental ill health. Using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM) MDD is described as ‘an episodic disorder with a chronic outcome and an elevated risk of mortality’ which involves ‘the presence of at least one major depressive episode, which is the experience of depressed mood almost all day, every day for at least two weeks’.

The study relies entirely on pre-existing data reviewed from ‘literature’ between ‘1st January 1980 and 31st December 2008’, adding limply, with ‘continued perusal of the literature until 31st December 2011.’ During which time the DSM had been revised five times. The map presents the highest alleged records of clinical depression in ‘The Middle East and North Africa’, continuing that the burden is most prevalent in ‘Eritrea, Rwanda, Botswana, Gabon, Croatia, the Netherlands (!) and Honduras.’ The author finalizes this assumption didactically ‘See some patterns here? The researchers did, too.’

This is all despite the inherent contradiction of the study cautioning ‘that reliable depression surveys don’t even exist for some low-income countries — a common issue with global studies — forcing the researchers to come up with their own estimates based on statistical regression models.’ This sentiment had been numerously repeated and is even mirrored in the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) last review of the African continent. Conducted through the distorted lens of the Western theoretical framework of diagnosing mental ill health; the review was reduced to ‘estimates’, adding it is ‘difficult to get a clear picture as data collection was patchy’.

Professor David Ndetei, a mental health expert working in Kenya, and founder of the African Mental Health Foundation delivered a key message during a talk at the University of California, Berkeley on October 18th, 2012. Commenting ‘All indicators from the available epidemiological data suggest that the patterns and prevalence of mental disorders in Africa are similar to those found in High Income Countries (HIC) such as the USA, but that is as far as the similarities go.’

According to Emmanuel Akyeampong, a Professor of History at Harvard University, ‘several African countries, including Nigeria, Sudan, Senegal, and Ghana, have had strong psychiatric traditions beginning in the 1950s.’ Yet the only thing this study, article and map is indicative of is a horrifying symptom. The imposition and seemingly impervious arrogance of the Western understanding and classification of mental illness. A psychiatric imperialism that is being exported around the world discounting entirely: country of birth, ethnicity, culture, context, language, personality, childhood or any meaningful ethnographic considerations. In alignment with this homogenised perspective, the mind will continue to be reduced to an object — merely consistent of component parts — as drug companies and the market persist with its commodification. With a DSM under one arm, this model left unchallenged will move freely between countries, advertising the remedies for this ‘chemical imbalance’, to only then sell you solution.

For a healthcare system that has been designed to help people, it is clear that it can only function if the human is sterilized and removed.

Further Reading

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A 2019 attempt to prolong the regime of Algeria’s incapacitated president Abdelaziz Bouteflika inspired the Hirak protest movement. Bouteflika died on September 17, 2021, but the Hirak marches on around the world