December 7, 1995

On the Couch, Culture Affects All

The New York Times, Dec 7, 1995, page 30.

To the Editor:

At first blush, “Making Room on the Couch for Culture” (Science Times, Dec. 5) seems to describe an advance in psychiatry. Instead of being diagnosed psychotic and treated with antidepressants, the bereaved woman is understood in the context of her Hispanic culture. Her “loss of soul” is helped through loving family support in a mourning ritual.

The lesson appears to be that if you are a depressed woman from another culture you might get your feelings taken seriously by American psychiatrists, but if you’re from this country you can expect the old biological diagnoses, drugs and electroshock.

Women in America are frequently diagnosed as suffering from “biochemical imbalances” when they respond to their life situations with overwhelming feelings of sadness and loss. Elderly women, a group with multiple cultural reasons for becoming depressed, are routinely diagnosed as psychotic and subjected to electroshock treatment.

As a psychiatrist, I believe my profession’s growing “cultural enlightenment” would be less hypocritical and more positive if it were directed at all of its patients, male and female, young and old, American and foreign born.

PETER R. BREGGIN, M.D. National Director, Center for the Study of Psychiatry and Psychology Bethesda, Md., Dec. 5, 1995