Neurasthenia, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and the Medicalization of Worry in a Vietnamese Psychiatric Hospital

Abstract

This article examines two forms of the medicalization of worry in an outpatient psychiatric clinic in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Biomedical psychiatrists understand patients’ symptoms as manifestations of the excessive worry associated with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Drawing on an ethnopsychology of emotion that reflects increasingly popular models of neoliberal selfhood, these psychiatrists encourage patients to frame psychic distress in terms of private feelings to address the conditions in their lives that lead to chronic anxiety. However, most patients attribute their symptoms to neurasthenia instead of GAD. Differences between doctors’ and patients’ explanatory models are not just rooted in their understandings of illness but also in their respective conceptualizations of worry in terms of emotion and sentiment. Patients with neurasthenia reject doctors’ attempts to psychologize distress and maintain a model of worry that supports a sense of moral selfhood based on notions of obligation and sacrifice.

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