Mental illness as a social and cultural artifact

In the Islamic world, mental illnesses are often attributed to evil spirits, or “jinns” (Credit: Alamy)

This article is a fascinating look at the connection between certain kinds of mental illness and the different social or cultural circumstances that lead to them: “In Cambodia, for example, it’s commonly believed that the body is riddled with channels that contain a wind-like substance – and if these become blocked, the resulting wind overdose will cause the sufferer to permanently lose the use of a limb or die. Out of 100 Khmer patients at one psychiatric clinic in the US, one study found that 36% had experienced an episode of the illness at some point. Bouts usually proceed slowly, starting with a general feeling of malaise. Then, one day, the victim will stand up and notice that they feel dizzy – and this is how they know that the attack is starting. Eventually they’ll fall to the ground, unable to move or speak until their relatives have administered the appropriate first aid, which usually consists of massaging their limbs or biting their ankles.”

“In the central plateau region of Haiti, people regularly fall sick with “reflechi twòp”, or “thinking too much”, which involves ruminating on your troubles until you can barely leave the house. In South Korea, meanwhile, there’s “Hwa-byung” – loosely translated as “rage virus” – which is caused by bottling up your feelings about things you see as unfair, until you succumb to some alarming physical symptoms, like a burning sensation in the body. Dealing with exasperating family members is a major risk factor – it’s common during divorces and conflicts with in-laws.”

“in the Islamic world, it’s widely believed that it’s possible to become possessed by “jinns”, or evil spirits. They can be good, bad, or neutral, but they’re generally blamed for erratic behaviour. The concept is so mainstream, it’s even in the Muslim holy book, the Koran. “A lot of my patients do hold these beliefs quite strongly,” says Shahzada Nawaz, a consultant psychiatrist at North Manchester General Hospital in the UK.  Nawaz explains that the ability to invoke jinns is particularly useful in Islamic cultures, because of the stigma that tends to accompany Western mental illnesses. One study of 30 Bangladeshi patients attending a mental health service in an east London borough found that their family members often felt that jinn possession was responsible.”

Trump vs social media

Note: I originally wrote this for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Donald Trump’s war on social media escalated recently after Twitter added a warning label to two of his tweets, with a link to a fact-check of the information he posted, and then blocked a third tweet with a message about violent content. Within days, Trump issued an executive order calling on the FCC to investigate whether social-media companies should lose the protection of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives online platforms immunity for the content they host, because of what he claims are biased decisions about content. In contrast, Facebook has done nothing about Trump’s comments, despite the fact that a number of staffers have walked out to protest its lack of action—an unprecedented show of dissent for the company—and some have even quit their jobs. The executive order is widely viewed as legally dubious, but it is a convenient stick with which to threaten the social platforms. Will it work? Is that why Facebook has declined to take any action? Which approach is the right one, Twitter’s labelling or Facebook’s hands-off strategy?

To address these and other related questions, we used CJR’s Galley platform to host a virtual discussion with a group of journalists, legal analysts and other experts. Parker Molloy, editor-at-large for Media Matters, said the executive order is just another attempt to deal with what conservatives feel is a liberal bias in social-media companies. “Is there any evidence of this? No. We’ve done study after study after study on this topic, and there’s honestly no reason to believe there’s some sort of liberal/progressive bias at social-media companies. Conservatives are really just trying to ‘work the refs’ as a way to push these companies into adopting a pro-conservative bias.” Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University and co-director of the High Tech Law Institute, said the order was aimed at internet companies—to discourage them from moderating conservative content—but was also a diversionary tactic to get the media to stop focusing on all the people who died from COVID-19. Even if the order has no actual legal effect, Goldman says, Trump “has likely accomplished his goals.”

Bridget Barrett, a researcher at the University of North Carolina, says that Facebook “had an opportunity here to clearly communicate what it would and wouldn’t tolerate, and for Trump, it looks like almost everything will be allowed. As someone who has spent the past couple months digging into the policies that platforms set for their users, this is incredibly frustrating. More importantly, as someone who wants our democracy to work, this is incredibly worrying.” And Errin Haines, editor-at-large for The 19th, a nonprofit news entity focused on gender politics, said “as a major source of information for a majority of people around the world and in our country, both of these platforms do have a responsibility to do no harm.” Jonathan Zittrain, a professor at Harvard Law School, made the broader point that “it’s strange that people like Mark (Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook) and Jack (Dorsey, chief executive of Twitter) have as much power as they do—whether to promote or squelch speech across billions of posts and users per day, including the power to do nothing.”

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