Conflict, Culture, and Mental Health: What an anthropological approach reveals about depression and suicidality

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Dr. Kristen Syme, PhD | Conflict, Culture, and Mental Health: What an anthropological approach reveals about depression and suicidality (1 CE hour)

Popular Western narratives of depression frame it as a disease that is caused by a ‘chemical imbalance’ in the brain. This model, however, is not supported by empirical evidence. Data from western and non-western societies instead indicate that depression and suicidality are closely associated with, and likely caused by, adversity, conflict, and powerlessness. There is often not a direct translation of depression across diverse languages. There are terms, however, that denote psychological and behavioral manifestations that overlap with depression, such as low mood and withdrawal, but these terms also situate those phenomena in social contexts. A cross-cultural investigation of suicidality further revealed that suicide threats, attempts, and deaths were usually preceded by conflicts, such as forced or thwarted marriages, with powerful others.

Taking an evolutionary approach, my collaborators and I have proposed that depression and suicidality are functional responses to conflict and adversity that, like pain, indicate the presence of threats and motivate change. This does not mean that depression and suicidality should not be treated. Rather, depressed and suicidal individuals stand to benefit from knowledgeable specialists who can help identify strategies and resources to ameliorate adversity and resolve conflict. Resolving conflict is often beyond the scope of what therapists can accomplish in the setting of individual therapy. I will briefly discuss how therapists might draw inspiration from restorative rituals found across societies to develop novel approaches to aid individuals in restoring social relations.

Learning Objectives:

  1. Contemplate three ways depression and suicidality are different across cultural and social contexts
  2. Evaluate and apply evolutionary models of health and disease to depression and suicidality
  3. Conceptualize three ways that depression and suicidality are often caused by adversity and intractable conflicts with others

Our Presenter

Dr. Kristen Syme PH.D.

Dr. Kristen Syme is a biocultural anthropologist that investigates the human universals and cultural particularities of human psychology and behavior. Her research program is driven by the core belief that in order to advance our scientific understanding of human mind and behavior, we have to look outside the confines of our culture. What is normal? What is moral? What is healthy? The answers to these questions vary across time and space. Her research focuses on how human sociality can inform our understanding of depression, suicidality, and other mental health and behavioral issues. She uses a diverse set of research methodologies including ethnographic data, comparative cross-cultural analyses, confirmatory hypothesis testing, and exploratory research methods. A key finding from this research program is that social conflict and powerlessness often go hand-in-hand with depression and suicidality.


Therapy Reimagined is approved by the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists to sponsor continuing education for LMFTs, LPCCs, LCSWs, and LEPs (CAMFT CEPA provider #132270). Therapy Reimagined maintains responsibility for this program and its content. Courses meet the qualifications for the listed hours of continuing education credit for LMFTs, LCSWs, LPCCs, and/or LEPs as required by the California Board of Behavioral Sciences. We are working on additional provider approvals, but solely are able to provide CAMFT CEs at this time. Please check with your licensing body to ensure that they will accept this as an equivalent learning credit.