How Mental Health Syndromes Arise From Social Change

A new theory describes how mental health syndromes arise out of complex social and ecological situations.

Micah Ingle, MA
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A recent chapter published in the book Perspectives for a New Social Theory of Sustainability explores a “systems theory” perspective on how mental health syndromes arise and evolve over time. The authors discuss how the emergence of syndromes is linked to changes in migration patterns, technology, social norms, medicine, economic inequality, and more. These syndromes range from the “rapidly mutant” to the “slow mimetic mutant.” They suggest that some syndromes can be viewed as “heralds” for societal changes on the horizon.

“We propose a model to explain the possible cybernetics of syndromes. We consider cultural tradition as well as the transformation processes that link the effects of migration to the process of globalization. We try to figure out how psychiatric syndromes are linked to social context and the ecosystem in which they are embedded,” explain the authors, led by Italian psychiatrist Paolo Cianconi.
“Syndromes indirectly highlight choices made when certain conditions spread into the social body. It is possible to see consequence expression in the psychopathology of the general population, especially among vulnerable groups.” 
Dynamic Systems Theory, Flickr

There is a growing movement in psychiatry and adjacent fields toward an ecological understanding of mental health as socially and economically based, rather than solely as arising within individual brains, as in the medical model.

Specifically, many researchers argue that syndromes as diverse as “schizophrenia,” hearing voices, and “ecological grief should be understood within broader historical and social contexts.

In their chapter, the authors give a broad overview of how complex, nonlinear ecological and social systems can lead to new developments in psychopathological syndromes, as well as changes in existing ones. The authors begin by talking about “cultural syndromes” in relation to migration. Then they discuss how shifts in existing social and environmental systems can affect even those who “stay in place.”

The authors theorize that the human mind is always seeking stability and coherence, but changes in our ecosystems can present challenges to mental and emotional sustainability. This sustainability requires our ability to “avoid threats,” as well as gaps in power and lack of access to resources.

Discussing cultural syndromes, they argue that as individuals migrate from one culture to another, shifts can occur in the nature of pathological syndromes. They note that “new immigrants to Europe showed a low positive response, even to traditional therapy,” such that healing methods from the original culture may not be able to address the syndrome as it has evolved. There can be a “mutation” that occurs as people are exposed to different environments. Specific environmental factors that lead to difficulties that migrants face include racial discrimination, lack of belonging, language difficulties, job precarity, and more.

In terms of changes in existing contexts, the authors believe that traditional ways of understanding psychopathology can easily become confused by the complexity of social changes. Processes of industrialization and globalization, leading to our current “postmodern” technological era, can shift the ground beneath our feet:

“If it is the social territory that moves under our feet, like a sliding platform, the objective situation is that of being elsewhere, despite the fact that we have not moved geographically.”

These environmental shifts can lead to shifts in pathological syndromes, which the discipline of psychiatry, as well as individual therapists, may have difficulty recognizing. The authors list several issues as examples of this phenomenon, such as climate change syndromes, collapsing societies due to natural disasters, and social paranoia syndromes. They note that societies experiencing “rapid economic crises or decline” show higher rates of distress, suicide, alcohol abuse, and gambling.

The authors discuss PTSD as an example of a “rapidly mutant syndrome.” Vietnam veterans were faced not only with the violence of war, but also a cultural conflict with emerging pacifism as they returned home. 

“Avenger shooter terrorists” are another rapidly mutant syndrome discussed, where individuals—”young adults, presently mostly males, intelligent, generally well-off, often exhibiting social problems, selective withdrawal, rarely sociable, and having little intimate life”—attempt to “take revenge” on a rapidly changing world from which they feel disenfranchised. The authors argue that this population may be a “counterinsurgency against globalization,” as some groups feel alienated and left out by rapid postmodern societal shifts.

Syndromes can develop at a slower rate as well, due to factors such as “poor access to resources,” “racism and oppression,” “the availability of new drugs,” “environmental unpredictability,” and more. 

These “slow mimetic mutant syndromes” are often confused by psychiatrists and therapists with existing syndromes. The authors list “hysteria” and “possession” epidemics in the 19th century here, as well as the evolution of these syndromes into the bourgeois “borderline personality disorder” in the 1950s. Some symptoms stayed the same, while the overall syndrome changed shape significantly.

The authors note that all syndromes are dynamic and will undergo “shaping and smoothing,” according to how medical culture and other environmental forces interact with them.

Finally, they argue that syndromes can serve as a “herald” of unforeseen societal changes, like a canary in a coal mine. As our minds and cultures “absorb” changes in the environment, this will lead to both changes in existing syndromes as well as the violent eruption of new syndromes.

The authors conclude by suggesting the necessity of understanding broader world contexts if therapists want to understand psychological syndromes and symptoms:

“Syndromes are dynamic functions. Their symptoms are expressions of clear malfunctioning of the biological, cognitive, emotional, and social systems (the core), influenced by a context or cultural condition. When a social system (whether globalization, migration, or any other social crisis) changes, the dynamic balance needed for survival is compromised, which is evidenced in certain psychopathologic phenomenology. 
Today’s therapists must have a solid grasp on the evolution of our world in order to study mutations that occur in communication. Biological entities often struggle to achieve homeostasis, even in desirable environments.”

 

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Cianconi P., Tomasi F., Morello M., Janiri L. (2020). Toward an understanding of psychopathological syndromes related to social environments. In Nocenzi M. & Sannella A. (eds), Perspectives for a new social theory of sustainability. Springer: New York. (Link)

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Micah Ingle, MA
MIA Research News Team: Micah Ingle is a doctoral student in Psychology: Consciousness and Society at the University of West Georgia. He has published on therapeutic approaches centering the person-in-context, as opposed to the individualizing medical model, and on the characteristics of people high in empathy. His current interests include the intersection of sociopolitical/economic structures and mental health, individualism in psychology, gender, liberation psychology, and mythopoetic perspectives inspired by Jungian thought.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Micah, congrats! Wow Micah, I hope you incorporate this article into your life.
    It is difficult for a lot or most privileged folks to truly understand. I almost think one must need lived experience?
    A wonderful truthful article and so encouraging.
    Paulo Cianconi seems like a wise man. If we could stick to this, without the need for
    medicalizing, we could potentially get somewhere.
    I doubt that psychiatry is anywhere ready to embrace common sense, or they ruin the common sense
    thought that comes from greats like Paulo.
    You know, we still need to put a medicalization spin on it, or else what will become of us, the experts.

    And as psychiatry works now, is SO VERY far from what is really happening to humans, and they will in the end find out just how off the mark they were.
    This business of theirs is not going to affect the poor “mentally ill” only. And it is where most of society is so ill informed, so led astray, so brainwashed.

  2. Your analysis seems to be able to dovetail with the Epigenetic Theory where you can inherit beliefs and traumas. It seems we are watching some of this in real-time with all the mass migration going on at this present time. I do not look forward to the children & grandchildren’s issues coming from these immigrants and the people they moved nearby.
    I grew up in a military family- moving nearly every 18 months. Living as a child in different parts of the US can be like moving to a different country & culture! Adding the stress of language & other dramatic differences would be very difficult to comprehend for most folks. It’s a sink or swim situation to be sure. Thank you for bringing forth this information.

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