Uh-oh. / The Globalization of Mental Illness

Culture-Bound Syndromes: an honest attempt to recognize the cultural context of individual patients, or just another avenue for Western Colonization and cultural genocide?


Soc Sci Med. 1985;21(2):197-203.

The concept of culture-bound syndromes: anorexia nervosa and brain-fag.


The concept culture-bound syndrome’ (CBS) is elusive. In this paper an attempt has been made to tie the concept down more firmly by proposing a strict definition, examining the appropriateness of this definition in determining the CBS status of two new syndromes (anorexia nervosa and brain-fag) and analysing the usefulness or not of the basic CBS concept. A CBS is defined as a collection of signs and symptoms of disease (not including notions of cause as recently proposed in the anthropological literature) which is restricted to a limited number of cultures by reason of certain of their psychosocial features.

Anorexia nervosa appears to fit the definition but further empirical evidence is required to assure that the illness is restricted to Western cultures or cultures strongly influenced by them. The question of the CBS status of brain-fag demonstrates the need to clearly differentiate such disease features as symptom clusters, labels for those clusters, and notions of etiology. Failure to keep such features distinct has led to considerable controversy, but if the proposed definition is strictly adhered to, brain-fag does qualify for the CBS designation. As regards the usefulness of the CBS concept, it is proposed that the question hinges upon whether CBS’s signal a difference that makes a difference. It is demonstrated that the CBS concept is useful for medical anthropologists or transcultural psychiatrists who are concerned about relationships between symptom patterns and cultural processes. It is also useful to epidemiologists who, for example, may be interested in estimating the prevalence of depression; it is important to know that they must count some cases of CBS’s along with cases of depression with a more typically Western symptomatology. The concept may be redundant for psychopharmacologists who find that they successfully treat many different culture bound syndromes with the same drugs.


PMID: 2413552 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE] Cult Med Psychiatry. 1987 Mar;11(1):3-52. Afr J Psychiatry (Johannesbg). 2009 May;12(2):135-43.

Brain Fag Syndrome – a myth or a reality.

Ola BA1, Morakinyo O, Adewuya AO. 1Department of Psychiatry, Lagos State University College of Medicine, Lagos, Nigeria. wobola@yahoo.com


The Brain Fag Syndrome (BFS) is defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) as a culture bound syndrome. BFS is a tetrad of somatic complaints; cognitive impairments; sleep related complaints; and other somatic impairments. Prince first described this psychiatric illness associated with study among African students in 1960. There have been questions relating to the nosological status of the syndrome as to whether: BFS is an objective or subjective phenomenon; it is one phenomenon or a variant of other known disorders; it is a mental illness? These three questions pose challenges to the culture bound/depressive or anxiety equivalent approach to the condition. The scope of this paper is the scope of BFS history from its first reference in the psychological medicine to the most contemporary descriptions in transcultural psychiatry. The conceptual history of BFS is divided into four major perspectives: Traditional medicine, Psychoanalysis, Biopsychological and Transcultural psychiatry. This helps to outline some of the key issues, helps to clarify its nosological status, its present status and helps to set the stage for the future progress. From its conceptual history, BFS as a phenomenon, with its distinct presentations, is subjectively real and is best classified with the framework of psychiatry, psychology and or sociology. The existence of BFS is evidenced by case as well as epidemiological reports of the condition in different locations. However, its course, response to treatment and outcome deserve more attention than has been given.



Culture-bound syndromes and international disease classifications.


An important endeavor in the world psychiatric community is the development of an international classification of psychiatric disorders that will be more culture-free (or culture-defined by Western psych-psych?) than either the current DSM-III or ICD-9. This classification should be clinically useful and relevant to psychiatric experience in all countries of the world. A major problem in this endeavor is the existence of the so-called culture-bound syndromes syndromes (CBS’s) which reflect cultural influences on disease patterns and render them difficult to place in disease classifications which have their origins in Western cultures. Literally dozens of disorders have been labelled CBS’s around the world, and considerable looseness has developed in the use of the CBS rubric. Recently it has been proposed that all illnesses (both physical and psychiatric) are in fact culture bound. In reaction to this drift towards meaninglessness, a new definition for CBS’s is proposed – a collection of signs and symptoms (excluding notions of cause) which is restricted to a limited number of cultures primarily by reason of certain of their psychosocial features. In this definition, notions of etiology and illness labels are excluded because these are highly variable and change over time. On the other hand, collections of signs and symptoms (i.e., syndromes), insofar as they are reasonably complete descriptions of nature, remain constant over time and are verifiable by all investigators.

Using two CBS’s from the Pacific basin area – taijin-kyofu-sho and latah – as examples, the following conclusions are drawn: CBS status should not be assigned on the basis of differential distribution of illnesses because of accidents of geography or on the basis of local labels or notions of cause; epidemiological features of diseases such as global prevalence or age/sex differentials of those affected should not be used as basis of CBS status; the meaning of illness, both for individuals and for cultures, is an important area of study in its own right but such meanings should not be confused with syndrome descriptions or used as criteria for an international disease classification; a truly international classification of diseases is close to realization through relatively minor alterations in the Axis I designations and descriptions of DSM-III. Few entirely new categories would be required.


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