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What are Culture-Bound Syndromes?

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In the last post, I talked a little about cultural psychiatry, and how the definition of normal behavior and abnormal behavior differs around the world. Because of this, medical anthropologists wonder if our Western definitions of mental illnesses are not universal. I also mentioned that there are some illnesses that are found only in certain cultures. These are called culture-bound syndromes, and I’ll talk more about these illnesses in this post.

What is a Culture-Bound Syndrome?

First of all, I should mention that there is some controversy about the term, “culture-bound syndrome.” However, that discussion is beyond the scope of this post, which is meant for a general audience. The DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition), which is the official handbook of psychiatric disorders, calls these illnesses “cultural concepts of distress.” Culture-bound syndromes may also be referred to as “folk illnesses” or “culture-specific disorders.”
Whatever term is used, a culture-bound syndrome is an illness, usually a mental illness, that is found only in certain cultures. This does not mean that the illness is only found in a certain country or place though because people from different cultures are living all over the world.
And, a culture-bound syndrome does not match up exactly with any disorder listed in the DSM handbook. So, a culture-bound syndrome can involve parts of multiple different psychiatric diagnoses. For example, in the DSM-5, it says that the culture-bound syndrome Kufungisisa (found among the Shona of Zimbabwe) is related to 6 different (Western) psychiatric diagnoses.
Also, sometimes illnesses similar to a certain culture-bound syndrome are found in other cultures as well. For example, illnesses similar to Kufungisisa have been found in parts of Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America, along with some East Asian and Native American groups.

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Examples of Culture-Bound Syndromes

There are many examples of culture-bound syndromes, but I’ll talk about just a few of them. Please note that these illnesses are complex, and I can only briefly describe some aspects of these conditions in this post. (For more thorough descriptions and a glossary of 168 culture-bound syndromes, see the book “The Culture-Bound Syndromes: Folk Illnesses of Psychiatric and Anthropological Interest” published in 1985.)

Koro: A Genital Retraction Syndrome

Koro is an illness found in Southeast Asian cultures. In this illness, usually, males are affected. A man with koro believes that his penis is retracting into his abdomen, and this will end in death. He will try to stop the penis from retracting, for instance by tying strings to it. Similar illnesses have been found in China, Thailand, India, and other places.

Amok: A Sudden Mass Assault Syndrome

Amok is an illness found in Malaysia. In this illness, only males are affected. A male suffers an insult and then broods about it for a period of time. Then the person becomes blind with rage and tries to kill everyone he encounters. He is only stopped if he is bound or killed, and he doesn’t remember what he did afterward. Similar illnesses involving a killing frenzy have been found in Norse culture, among the Zulu, and in other places.

Pibloktoq: A Running Syndrome

Pibloktoq is an illness found among the Polar Eskimo and is also known as “arctic hysteria.” This illness affects mostly adult women. It has many possible symptoms, which include tearing off clothing, running through the snow, and talking nonsense. Afterward, the affected person is exhausted and may sleep for a long time.

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Implications of Culture-Bound Syndromes

Some people think that culture-bound syndromes can be assimilated into the categories of mental illness that Western biomedicine has created. Other people think that the Western categories of mental illness are just a product of Western culture and should not be applied to the illnesses of other cultures.
What do you think? Can the psychiatric diagnoses created by Western biomedicine be applied to all cultures around the world? Are culture-bound syndromes just different versions of these Western diagnoses? Or is it possible that Western psychiatric diagnoses are just one culturally-based way of looking at things?

Learn More

Want to learn more about culture-bound syndromes? Check out Medscape’s article, “Culture-Specific Psychiatric Syndromes: A Review.”
Want to really dive in and read some journal articles on the topic of culture-bound syndromes? Check out these FREE articles:
Thanks for reading!