In part, this backlash against the bio-bio-bio model reflects the sophisticated insight of an emerging understanding of the body—epigenetics—in which genes themselves respond to an individual’s social context.
The best data come from India. In the study that established the difference, researchers looking at people two years after they first showed up at a hospital for care found that they scored significantly better on most outcome measures than a comparable group in the West. They had fewer symptoms, took less medication, and were more likely to be employed and married. The results were dissected, reanalyzed, then replicated—not in a tranquil Hindu village, but in the chaotic urban tangle of modern Chennai. No one really knows why Indian patients did so well, but increasingly, psychiatric scientists are willing to attribute the better outcomes to social factors. For one thing, families are far more involved in the ill person’s care in India. They come to all the appointments, manage the medications, and allow the patients to live with them indefinitely. Compared to Europeans and Americans, they yell at the patients less.
Indian families also don’t treat people with schizophrenia as if they have a soul-destroying illness. As an anthropology graduate student, Amy Sousa spent more than a year in northern India, sitting with doctors as they treated patients who came with their families into a dingy hospital where overworked psychiatrists can routinely have 10 appointments an hour. Many of the doctors didn’t mention a diagnosis. Many of the families didn’t ask. There was a good deal of deception—wives grinding medication into the flour for the daily chapattis they made for their husbands, doctors explaining to patients that they were completely well but should take strengthening pills to protect themselves from the ravages of their youth. As a result, none of the patients thought of themselves as having a career-ending illness, and every one of them expected to get better. And at least compared to patients in the West, they generally did.
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