Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry

, Volume 6, Issue 2, pp 117-190

First online:

Neurasthenia and depression: A study of somatization and culture in China

Report Number One of the University of Washington — Hunan Medical College Collaborative Research Project111222
  • Arthur KleinmanAffiliated withUniversity of Washington

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The author reviews conceptual and empirical issues regarding the interaction of neurasthenia, somatization and depression in Chinese culture and in the West. The historical background of neurasthenia and its current status are discussed, along with the epidemiology and phenomenology of somatization and depression. Findings are presented from a combined clinical and anthropological field study of 100 patients with neurasthenia in the Psychiatry Outpatient Clinic at the Hunan Medical College. Eighty-seven of these patients made the DSM-III criteria of Major Depressive Disorder; diagnoses of anxiety disorders were also frequent. Forty-four patients were suffering from chronic pain syndromes previously undiagnosed, and cases of culture-bound syndromes also were detected. For three-quarters of patients the social significances and uses of their illness behavior chiefly related to work. Although from the researchers' perspective 70% of patients with Major Depressive Disorder experienced substantial improvement and 87% some improvement in symptoms when treated with antidepressant medication, fewer experienced decreased help seeking, and a much smaller number perceived less social impairment and improvement in illnes problems (the psychosocial accompaniment of disease including maladaptive coping and work, family and school problems). These findings are drawn on to advance medical anthropology and cultural psychiatry theory and research regarding somatization in Chinese culture, the United States and cross culturally. The author concludes that though neurasthenia can be understood in several distinctive ways, it is most clinically useful to regard it as bioculturally patterned illness experience (a special form of somatization) related to either depression and other diseases or to culturally sanctioned idioms of distress and psychosocial coping.