Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry

, Volume 12, Issue 3, pp 301-329

Ethnopsychiatric interpretations of schizophrenic illness: The problem of nervios within Mexican-American families

  • Janis H. JenkinsAffiliated withDepartment of Social Medicine and Health Policy, Harvard Medical School

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Among Mexican-American families, the concept of nervios (nerves) serves as a culturally meaningful illness category for a wide range of conditions, including schizophrenic disorders diagnosed according to psychiatric criteria. This article examines the nature and the meaning of nervios as a notion used by Mexican-American families to understand the schizophrenic illness of a relative. Family descriptions of the condition are presented and the emotional and symbolic meanings of the concept are discussed. The complex and somewhat ambiguous nature of folk conceptions is evidenced not only by variations in the description of nervios but also by the finding that nervios is but one way to view schizophrenic illness. It is suggested that a cultural preference for the term nervios is linked to the efforts of family members to reduce the stigma associated with a mental illness while also reinforcing the strength of family bonds and solidarity by fostering tolerant inclusion of the family member within the home. It is argued that the concept of nervios, and the family emotions that surround this folk label, may mediate the course and outcome of schizophrenic disorder.