Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry

, Volume 10, Issue 2, pp 123–149 | Cite as

The interaction of mental illness, criminal behavior and culture: Native Alaskan mentally ill criminal offenders

  • Michael R. Phillips
  • Thomas S. Inui


The rapid changes experienced by non-Western ethnic groups as they become “acculturated” to Western life-styles are frequently associated with disintegration of the traditional cultures and psychosocial dysfunction of the groups' members. How culture changes lead to maladaptation remains a mystery. As a first step in clarifying this relationship, this paper proposes a method for analyzing the interaction of cultural change and psychosocial maladjustment. It uses Native Alaskans as a paradigmatic example of a group that is undergoing rapid changes and describes in detail a maladjusted subgroup of Native Alaskans-mentally ill criminal offenders. It compares 567 Native Alaskan criminal offenders who were referred to mental health professionals (from 1977 thru 1981) to 939 White Alaskan offenders.

We find that alcohol abuse, the dominant social problem for Native Alaskans, is not clearly associated with the degree of sociocultural change. Residence in larger communities and higher educational achievement are associated with greater psychosocial maladjustment. The region of residence (i.e., Native Corporation) has a stronger influence on the rate and type of maladjustment than the ethnic group (i.e., Eskimo, Indian, or Aleut) or the “ethnic density” of the community of residence (i.e., the proportion of Native Alaskans in the population). We emphasize the importance of using such quantitative findings to focus the questions that should be addressed by ethnographic research.


Ethnic Group Mental Illness Social Problem Alcohol Abuse Rapid Change 
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Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company 1986

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michael R. Phillips
    • 1
  • Thomas S. Inui
    • 2
  1. 1.Research Center of Psychological MedicineHunan Medical CollegeChangsha, HunanPeople's Republic of China
  2. 2.Department of MedicineUniversity of WashingtonSeattleU.S.A.

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