Medical or Mental?

In his book “The Signal and the Noise,” poll-guru Nate Silver writes:

“Diseases and other medical conditions can also have this self-fulfilling property.  When medical contiditons are widely discussed in the media, people are more likely to identify their symptoms, and doctors are more likely to diagose (or misdiagnose) them.  The best-known case of this in recent years is autism.  If you compare the number of children who are diagnosed as ausistic to the frequency with which the term autism has been used in American newspapers, you’ll find that there is an almost perfect one-to-one correspondance.” (p. 217 – 218)

Essentially the more a disease is on people’s minds, the closer reporting of it gets to 100%.  Part of this is surely attributable to increased awareness – autism is a real thing – but at what point does hyper-awareness turn into a social manifestation of something else?  There were virtually no reports of western style eating disorders in Japan until, in 1994, local Japanese media began quoting out of American diagnostic manuals.  Suddenly American style anarexics were appearing everywhere – and still do.  

At what point do people who have underlying neurosis begin manifesting them through medically inspired symptoms, and at what point do we begin diagnosing them as having the “illness” they’re imitating?  (Or, in the case of some “autistic” children, the illness their parents are projecting?)

This interesting hypothetical question turns very grave when you remember that in most of these cases people will be treated with powerful psychotropic drugs that have serious side-effects … and won’t actually address the underlying cause.  It’s also relevant to point out that being psychiatrically institutionalized can be traumatic in itself – particularly for people who don’t actually have the condition they’re diagnosed with.  (Psychiatric hospitals are notoriously bad at identifying patients who don’t suffer from a psychiatric condition.)

In how many cases is our medical system’s habituated urge to drug and institutionalize turning a neurosis into a trauma?  How many people are getting poisoned unnecessarily?  I have no idea – and the system isn’t set up to provide these kinds of answers.  If anything, it’s resistant to even asking the question.