Poets and philosophers have long mused about the universal and idiosyncratic signature of our emotions. The human family shares a similar biology. Yet, culture leaves an undeniable imprint on our emotional narratives, including the way we feel and think of distress, how it manifests and how we cope with it. In her cross-cultural research on depression, psychologist Yulia Chentsova-Dutton likens depression’s constellations of symptoms to the starry sky. It’s the same universal experience of suffering, the same black vastness above our heads dotted with bright and dim lights. However, when we look at the night sky – as with the expression of depression around the world – we might notice some stars and miss others depending on where we are.
Here is Dr. Chentsova-Dutton in her own words on culture’s multifaceted influence on depression.
What are some causes of depression across cultures?
Many of the risk factors for depression are similar across cultures. These include gender, unemployment, traumatic events. The themes of depression tend to revolve around loss. But what people make of their losses and how they interpret their distress differs tremendously across cultures. In the West, we have increasingly pathologized depression and attributed it to biomedical factors. We tend to think that distancing people from their distress can be a functional way of helping them. However, teaching people that this very complex social, cultural, and biological phenomenon is entirely biological can backfire. It encourages people to ignore environmental factors, and instead, essentialize depression as a characteristic of themselves and their biology.
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