Tuesday, August 10, 2010

NPR piece gets a bit elitist even for me

I usually love NPR, but they screwed the pooch on this story:

The gist of the piece is that Western psychiatric treatment isn't widely available in India, and many Indians seek treatment through faith healers. You might think that my main objection was to the reliance on faith healing over conventional mental health treatment, and I do object to those practices.

However, the tone of the article is what made me cringe more than anything. It’s symptomatic of a sort of meme that has bugged me for a long time: the idea that Indians are inherently more superstitious than Westerners. This is utter bullshit. Uneducated Indians are superstitious, as are uneducated Westerners. The educated Indians I've met are no more or less superstitious than their Western counterparts.

For instance, I've talked a bit about my involvement in the Vedanta Society, which, at least at our local branch, is mostly comprised of Indians. But the education levels are generally higher than those of the people depicted in the NPR story (we even have some doctors in our group). I have not seen any anti-science sentiment among the leadership, and very little among the laity (almost any group has a few New Age types). In fact, when someone asked one of our most senior monks about focusing mental energies on an illness, the monk advised the person to see a doctor! So I think superstition is much more a function of education level than of nationality.

If you don't believe me, go to some of the less-educated parts of any country and see what kind of crazy beliefs you find. Hell, go to the halls of your nearest high school and just listen for all the supposed things that if you do after sex, you won’t get pregnant (my personal favorite is doing a handstand and having your partner pour cold water down your vagina). While you're at it, search YouTube for "cast out demons" and then tell me how that’s so much more sophisticated than going to a Shiva temple.

Also, the cost of psychiatric treatment is hardly a trivial matter. While the faith healers do charge ridiculous sums, those sums are still much cheaper than counseling and medication, which could go on for the rest of a person's life. That’s a problem in this country, too, and probably every country that doesn’t have socialized medicine (I’m referring strictly to end user cost; I’m not commenting one way or the other on whether socialized medicine is a good idea). And if you think there’s no stigma in this country associated with seeking mental health treatment, you need to pay attention or get out more.

I'm not in favor of faith healing by any means, at least not to the exclusion of medical treatment. But condescending crap like this doesn't help. It perpetuates stereotypes and gives the audience a false sense of superiority, which can take the focus away from the problems we have in this country regarding superstition and mental health treatment. And that would be a damn shame.

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