Anyway, in the chapter on autism in South Korea, Roy Richard Grinker alludes to something I've seen mentioned before, and am curious about.
While describing differences between rural South Korean villages and the capital city of Seoul in how these communities treat their autistic members, Grinker mentions some research conducted by the World Health Organization comparing how well people with mental illnesses fare in developed vs. developing countries:
An agricultural area often belittled by Koreans and long neglected by the government, Cholla-do remains the most underdeveloped region in one of the richest countries in the world. Cholla residents are familiar with discrimination and adversity and find it hard to improve their class and social status. They consider it a great success to make one's career in Seoul, where more than 25 percent of South Korea's 44 million people now live.
Still, after asking a few questions here and there (Are there any children who don't speak well? Are there children here with brain disorders?), I found a sixteen-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl in a mountainous county. Everyone seemed to know about them. And when I talked to the barber and the local grocery-store owner about them, there was no hint of discomfort or pity. Peter, as his mother wanted him to be called, was good with bicycles and served as a messenger for two villages, delivering letters and packages with a broad smile. He saw a doctor once every two months and was medicated with a small dose of an antipsychotic drug that calmed his anxiety and some of his repetitive movements. The girl, Soo-Rin, was in the village with her single mother only on weekends because she attended a special school for children with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and mental retardation. But everyone knew her too. Her room at home was lovely, pink with lace curtains, stuffed animals, and Disney characters. Her mother said she takes a medication at school to help her pay attention, but she didn't know what it was called. In these villages, you can find proof of something the World Health Organization has been arguing for years: People with mental disorders do better over time in remote, nonindustrial societies than in urban, industrial ones.
I'd read about that research before, in Robert Whitaker's book Anatomy of an Epidemic; in that book, he argues that the reason the people in developing countries are more likely to recover from acute mental illnesses, and don't become chronically mentally ill as often as people in developed countries, is because people in developing countries often don't have access to psychiatric medication, which Whitaker argues actually worsen a person's condition over time.
Grinker lists an earlier book by Whitaker --- Mad in America --- in his bibliography, along with a book-length follow-up to this study (full text here), but he is not making Whitaker's argument here. Instead, he thinks the people in the rural villages are more accepting than the people in the cities:
This is not to say that life for the disabled is easy in the villages --- even someone with a mild speech impediment, who is otherwise normal, will have just as much trouble finding a spouse as an urban dweller with the same problem. And parents can be just as devastated. One man confessed to me that in his despair he once took his young autistic son high up in the mountains, intending to slit his throat, but couldn't bring himself to do it. But for most parents of disabled children, life in the rich city of Seoul is more stressful than in the more humble village. One of the paradoxes of rural life is that people in the villages tend to be relatively accepting of diversity. Little remains secret, and there seems to be a place for everyone. In the rural areas, people assume that things would be much better for their children in the city. But in the city, in the sprawling, indistinguishable apartment complexes of Seoul, most people do not know their neighbors, even though they watch them as closely as they can. The pressures to measure up can seem overwhelming, and families try to keep anything that might reflect badly on their status hidden from view. The moment you bring your disabled child outside in this densely populated city is the moment you are confronted by strangers, people who will watch and judge you.Later on, he says something that would seem to rule out Whitaker's non-drug hypothesis: the children he met in the rural villages were taking psychiatric medications, while very few of the children he met in Seoul were taking any.
He sees this as symptomatic of the prevailing viewpoint in Seoul that autism is basically a death sentence; if nothing can make an autistic child non-autistic, what's the point of drugs or therapies? It all just costs money, and with drugs there's also the matter of side effects to consider.
(I actually thought his interviewees' concern about the side effects of psychotropic drugs was sensible; I thought Grinker in this passage was being way too uncritical of US psychiatrists' willingness to prescribe these drugs to children when so little is known about their long-term or developmental effects. I think his point about the all-or-nothing mentality is a valid one --- and that mentality is certainly not restricted to South Korea! --- but I don't share his faith that drugs always lead to better quality of life. Indeed, often their use is a symptom of the same societal rigidity that he blames for making urban life so much harder for autistic people to participate in than rural life.)
Anyway, his mention of those WHO studies reminded me that I had wanted to read them (and there are still more follow-ups, meta-analyses and similar studies from more recent years, too), and post about them.