Book Discussion: Crazy Like Us by Ethan Watters

The full title of this book is Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche by Ethan Watters.

I first read this book for a Psychological Anthropology class when I was an undergrad, and I’ve been revisiting it every so often ever since then (thanks Dr. Davenport!).

The are three main points in this book that I think the author makes very well:

  1. How we view mental illness–define it, diagnose it, treat it–is culturally relative.
  2. Marketing plays a huge role in how people all around the world view mental illness (and illness in genernal).
  3. Overall, U.S. American and “Western” views of mental illness are becoming more pervasive across the world.
Photo by Slava Bowman on Unsplash

The case studies in this book are informative and interesting. My favorite is Chapter 2: The Wave That Brought PTSD to Sri Lanka. This chapter discusses the conflict that arose when psychologists from the U.S. came to offer assistance to survivors of the 2004 tsunami that devastated Sri Lanka and many other parts of South and Southeast Asia.

Without giving away too much, the way that many Sri Lankan people sought to cope with the aftermath of the tsunami was not considered “the right way” by many of the U.S. American psychologists. This case brings up a few important questions– what is the “right way” to deal with (what is defined as) post-traumatic stress? And how do we even classify PTSD across cultural lines?

This is not to discount the hard work of our country’s trained psychologists and psychiatrists.

I believe that the vast majority of them are doing solid work providing care for individuals with facing mental health challenges. They are providing care based on the training they received in school, which is largely based in tried and tested methods of science. The point of this book and this discussion is to recognize how cultural biases change our perception of mental illness, and how bringing these ideas to light can open the door to new possibilities in treatment.

Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

This book was published in 2010, but I believe it still makes a lot of relevant points that can be applied to other concepts nine years later.

For example, U.S. American ideas of mental health are changing…

I’ve personally noticed a rise in discussion of “self care” and “mindfulness,” perhaps because many people have begun to recognize harmful stigmas surrounding mental illness in our society. Mental health in the U.S. is being viewed as a more personal, even spiritual, concept that should be addressed daily, rather than simply a medical or biological afterthought. The reasons behind the new attention to these concepts are complex, but it is clear that for one reason or another, our culture is changing (as cultures tend to do).

Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

In addition, some are seeking to change the conversation about conditions such as autism and ADHD. What was once thought of only as a behavioral issue in need of fixing is now seen as a different way of processing the world, one that can come with unique gifts.


One popular and praised method of psychological treatment is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which involves consciously changing one’s thought patterns, usually from negative to neutral or negative to positive. (This is obviously a bit of an oversimplification, but please bear with me for the sake of the metaphor.)

Maybe our culture is going through a collective process of CBT in regards to mental health concepts. Only time will tell how our perceptions and treatments could change.

You can read more about the book, as well as an excerpt, in this article published by NPR.



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