What's the main difference between Western societies and those from the East? Many might cite such things as skin colour, dress codes, dietary habits etc. However, there is something much more important which those of us born and brought up in the West should take heed of - especially if we want to avoid the stress of mental disorders. It is how we, as a society, deal with each other.
Western societies are generally termed ‘individualistic', which means they encourage people to be independent from one another. Promoting self expression and the pursuit of individuality over group goals are paramount in such societies. It's what our schools teach us in order to promote personal growth and achievement. However, the underside of all this is that such styles of living are also much more likely to promote tendencies towards depression than for people from Eastern cultures, whatever the genetic factors each individual may possess.
Research supports the idea that depression can result from both genes and the environment, and an interaction of the two. In Western populations, people who carry the short version of the serotonin transporter gene (STG) tend to suffer major depressive episodes when they experience a number of life stressors.
By contrast, Eastern societies are called ‘collectivist', which means they encourage people to be thought of as connected to one another and favour maintenance of social harmony over assertion of individuality. We've all observed how closely-knit Eastern families are, each member of the family supporting and caring for each other. But now, there is also an added benefit to living our lives in a more connected way. Collectivistic cultures, which promote social harmony over individuality, protect people who are genetically predisposed to depression from experiencing the condition. The support offered by a collectivist attitude protects vulnerable individuals from environmental risks or stressors that serve as triggers to depressive episodes.
We know that East Asian nations are typically more collectivist than Western societies, a finding which is corroborated by previous research. But, studies have revealed that in collectivist nations such as East Asia the actual prevalence of depression was found to be significantly lower than in more individualistic nations such as the United States.
In innovative studies, researchers examined data from many countries to measure genetic frequency of STG, allying it with cultural psychology research to determine how collectivistic the countries were.
The study sheds new light on which treatments for depression are likely to prove effective, and suggests that culture-based treatments could be one approach.
So, yes - children should still be taught how to ‘grow' and mature their individual strengths - but by so doing, we shouldn't fall into the trap of creating a society of loners, prey to the horrors of mental health diseases such as depression and suicide. Promote your inner strengths, but don't shun your neighbour.
We all need friends in order to survive and keep mentally strong, no matter where we live.