Photo ID: A prescription pill bottle on it's side with pills spilling out with a photo of Kristen Syme to one side and text overly

It’s NOT a Chemical Imbalance, An Interview with Dr. Kristen Syme

An interview with Dr. Kristen Syme on the situational and cultural impacts on depression.  Curt and Katie talk with Dr. Syme about the role anthropology can play in helping to challenge long held assumptions in psychology. We look at conceptualizations for depression and suicidality and how the over focus (in the Western world) on the individual as the agent for mental health and wellness. We talk about how the chemical imbalance model doesn’t hold up as well as better explanations for depression and suicidality.

It’s time to reimagine therapy and what it means to be a therapist. To support you as a whole person and a therapist, your hosts, Curt Widhalm and Katie Vernoy talk about how to approach the role of therapist in the modern age.


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Interview with Dr. Kristen Syme Ph.D.

Photo ID: Dr. Kristen SymeDr. Kristin 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.

In this episode we talk about the situational and cultural impacts on depression:

  • Syme’s research and how she is working to challenging assumptions
  • The lack of attention on networks and systems and an over-focus on “the self” as an agent for mental health and wellness
  • How psychological pain is signaling us that there are things in our environment that are unhealthy for us
  • Depression and psychological pain are not just within us, but also around us
  • What is wrong with the idea of “chemical imbalance” model
  • Adversity causes depression
  • The problem of saying “there’s a pill for that”

“If you have your hand on a hot stove, the issue isn’t with pain. You’re not going to take a Tylenol and keep holding on. You need to let go. Depression is very much like that.” — Dr. Kristen Syme

  • The work case for depression research
  • Ethical issues related to medicating away depression or psychological pain
  • How non-western cultures address psychological pain

“[There is] not a direct translation for depression in any other language” – Dr. Kristen Syme

  • The internal idea of the imbalance of black bile that leads directly through the ages to the concept of imbalance of serotonin
  • How other cultures talk about depression and situations, with more refined, specific language
  • How our language creates our reality around depression and how broadly we define it
  • How common depression (as broadly defined) is in the modern world
  • The lack of evidence for a “chemical imbalance”
  • How big pharma has impacted the conceptualization of depression
  • The inadequacy of treatment based on this conceptualization
  • Being called a psychopath regarding her framing of suicidality
  • Suicidality is a credible signal of need, but can be framed as black mail
  • The difference between suicidality and suicide death
  • The causes of suicidality: sexual assault, forced marriages, abuse
  • The problem of trivializing “seeking attention”
  • The tendency of coming up with “the theory”
  • Looking at how people might be better served by the mental health system
  • The importance of creativity and novelty in identifying better treatment

Resources for Modern Therapists mentioned in this Podcast Episode:

We’ve pulled together resources mentioned in this episode and put together some handy-dandy links. Please note that some of the links below may be affiliate links, so if you purchase after clicking below, we may get a little bit of cash in our pockets. We thank you in advance!

Article: Mental health is biological health: Why tackling “diseases of the mind” is an imperative for biological anthropology in the 21st century

Dr. Kristen Syme on Twitter

Dr. Kristen Syme on Google Scholar

Relevant Episodes of MTSG Podcast:

Burnout or Depression

Is Therapy an Opiate of the Masses?

Who we are:

Picture of Curt Widhalm, LMFT, co-host of the Modern Therapist's Survival Guide podcast; a nice young man with a glorious beard.Curt Widhalm, LMFT

Curt Widhalm is in private practice in the Los Angeles area. He is the cofounder of the Therapy Reimagined conference, an Adjunct Professor at Pepperdine University and CSUN, a former Subject Matter Expert for the California Board of Behavioral Sciences, former CFO of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, and a loving husband and father. He is 1/2 great person, 1/2 provocateur, and 1/2 geek, in that order. He dabbles in the dark art of making “dad jokes” and usually has a half-empty cup of coffee somewhere nearby. Learn more at:

Picture of Katie Vernoy, LMFT, co-host of the Modern Therapist's Survival Guide podcastKatie Vernoy, LMFT

Katie Vernoy is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, coach, and consultant supporting leaders, visionaries, executives, and helping professionals to create sustainable careers. Katie, with Curt, has developed workshops and a conference, Therapy Reimagined, to support therapists navigating through the modern challenges of this profession. In her spare time, Katie is secretly siphoning off Curt’s youthful energy, so that she can take over the world. Learn more at:

A Quick Note:

Our opinions are our own. We are only speaking for ourselves – except when we speak for each other, or over each other. We’re working on it.

Our guests are also only speaking for themselves and have their own opinions. We aren’t trying to take their voice, and no one speaks for us either. Mostly because they don’t want to, but hey.

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Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide Creative Credits:

Voice Over by DW McCann

Music by Crystal Grooms Mangano

Transcript for this episode of the Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide podcast (Autogenerated):

Transcripts do not include advertisements just a reference to the advertising break (as such timing does not account for advertisements).

… 0:00
(Opening Advertisement)

Announcer 0:00
You’re listening to the Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide where therapists live, breathe, and practice as human beings. To support you as a whole person and a therapist, here are your hosts, Curt Widhalm, and Katie Vernoy.

Curt Widhalm 0:15
Welcome back modern therapists, this is the Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide. I’m Curt Widhalm, with Katie Vernoy. And this is the podcast that deals with all things therapists, therapy related, the things in our field that we like, and the things that we’ve had long standing suggestions for. And one of the things that I’ve long claimed is that therapy is a field that gets way too stuck in itself, that it doesn’t take enough outside influence from different fields as far as how we look at things. And this is particularly discussion over the last couple of years, especially as there’s a lot more focus on cultural impacts into things. Being culturally competent, having cultural definitions of things. And a lot of this stems from fields like anthropology. And today’s guest is Dr. Kristen Syme, who is going to share with us all sorts of wonderful knowledge that based on her research, and we’ve been fans from afar for a while and really excited to have Dr. Syme at Therapy Reimagined 2021, as one of our speakers coming up. And so we’re really excited to talk about kind of this role as far as how anthropology, mental health, and in today’s podcast, specifically around some ideas around suicidality. And we might get into some of the other work that Dr. Syme’s done, too. But thank you very much for joining us today.

Dr. Kristen Syme 1:42
Thank you so much for having me.

Katie Vernoy 1:44
We are excited to have this conversation and excited to have you here and at Therapy Reimagined. 2021. Just so excited to have this conversation. The first question that we ask everyone is, who are you and what are you putting out into the world?

Dr. Kristen Syme 1:57
My name is Kristen Syme. I am an anthropologist, I guess what I’m putting out into the world is I want, and this is just something I’ve long been interested in is I want to challenge people in terms of their assumptions of reality. And that comes from just a long standing interest in culture, and sort of the stories that our culture and our societies tell us. You know, when you look around the world, they turn out to maybe not be true. And so I just love confronting that dissonance that’s out there in the world and sharing it with others and making people uncomfortable, I guess.

Katie Vernoy 2:36
Nice. I love it.

Curt Widhalm 2:38
So for the the portion of our fields that would immediately answer to what you just said is, how dare you? How dare you question our truth. From from your perspectives, what do mental health professionals often get wrong when conceptualizing some of the stuff around reactions, things like conflict and depression and suicidality?

Dr. Kristen Syme 3:04
Well, I think as something that is somewhat specific to the Western world, and by the Western world, I mean, like North America, European, you know, colonial history, Europeans, is that we focus on the self as like an agent, and not enough focusing on or just attention to the networks, the social networks that we’re embedded in. And how, you know, so we have this view of depression and suicidality, that it’s really from within the individual, which is true, but it’s also outside the individual. It’s also what’s happening in the outside world, and one is not more true than the other. That’s sort of the main conflict, you might say that I have, with maybe the that conception of depression, suicidality and other mental health conditions as well.

Curt Widhalm 3:59
Can you tell us more about this, because I’m picturing Kentucky as being depressed, as I’m hearing this. Not to pick on our Kentucky listeners, but just picking a part of, you know, the US that, you know, is in a lot of measures behind the rest of the country when it comes to health and a bunch of other things. When you’re talking about individual versus cultural depression here can you help me understand a little bit more as far as how that is a two way street there.

Dr. Kristen Syme 4:30
Our view of depression and maybe jumping the gun a little bit, and psychological pain in general, is that it’s, it’s a signal in our body, like pain is a signal in our body telling us that we’ve been harmed. That there’s something in an in our environment that’s hurting us. Psychological pain is telling us that there’s, it’s also telling us that there’s something in our environment that’s hurting us. It’s often other people. Because humans are a highly social species, one of the most highly, the most highly social primate species. We help each other, but we also hurt each other a lot. We rely on each other. But sometimes people don’t come through for us. Or we need things from people that they’re not able to give us. And so, so this view of psychological pain, which is takes on many forms, including jealousy, anger, depression being one specific form, we can’t separate those out. So it’s not just that depression or psychological pain is within us. It’s also external to us. It’s and it’s very often because of others in our social environment.

Katie Vernoy 5:34
I’m thinking about this meme that went around, and it was probably, I think it was in the before times, before the pandemic. It was something like you’re not depressed, you’re just surrounded by a-holes. So, and it said asshole. So maybe I should just say that. But I think it’s something where, to me, that’s always been kind of how I view depression is that most likely, there’s something in your environment, whether it’s your work environment, or the people that you spend time with that is, at least impacting you. But historically, and the way that the medical model definitely defines it, it’s been about this chemical imbalance, or there’s been this, this thought process, and I like the way you just like very internal, it’s the individual who is depressed. What is the problem with this idea of chemical imbalance or with the idea that someone internally like that I am depressed? Why is that short sighted? Or how do we I guess, let me rephrase that. How do we know that’s short sighted?

Dr. Kristen Syme 6:35
Well, there’s several ways to answer that. One way: the first of first of all, there’s no evidence for the chemical imbalance model. We can talk a little bit more about that later. But, but we actually know that, and there’s plenty of studies in, you know, that show this especially work done by Kenneth Kendler, it’s adversity, it’s stressful life events, that is probably the leading cause of depression. And so to focus on just the individual, your missing half the picture, or you’re missing with the actual cause of the issue. So if you’re, if you have your hand on a hot stove, you know, the issue isn’t with pain, you’re not going to take Tylenol…

Katie Vernoy 7:22
And just keep holding on to the hot stove.

Dr. Kristen Syme 7:23
Yeah, just keep holding on. No, you have to, you need to let go. There’s a problem if you’re not feeling pain, and depression is very much like that other forms of psychological pain to though like anger, jealousy, disgust, these are all informing us of things that we should be avoiding getting away from dealing with to just say, Okay, well, you need a pill for that. No, I that is just, it actually gets into some ethical issues, especially if say, you are being harmed by someone, maybe someone’s exploiting you or benefiting from you. And so and that’s actually what a lot of depression looks like. So for instance, you know, the work case for depression is often made to fund depression research. You know, billions of dollars are lost, because people are either showing up depressed work, or they’re not showing up to work because they’re depressed. But one of the key reasons, the leading risk factors for depression in the workplace is being bullied by superiors, not feeling like you’re being rewarded for the job that you’re doing. So even if we could find the perfect pill, because, you know, we have antidepressants, they’re moderately efficacious. They’re, they’re not the, you know, but even if we did, you know, have that magic bullet, there are serious ethical issues potentially at stake.

Curt Widhalm 8:40
And one of the themes that we’ve been hitting on on our show a lot recently is about this individual responsibility for societal system sort of things that you’re highlighting here. That a lot of our individual treatment ends up having this focus on making people okay with their situation, or in getting into this ethics of like, are we just getting people to be okay with being bullied by superiors or being abused by family members, or just subjecting themselves as and having depression, just be an expression of that. And, you know, I say this, like, this is something new to our show. But this is thematic for a very long time. You brought up at the top of the show about this being kind of a very western approach. And I know that you’ve studied cultures all over the world. How is this kind of held in comparison to cultures who might look at this more in balance or even more as a societal look at things?

Dr. Kristen Syme 9:44
Yeah, it’s interesting, because in many languages, there’s no, in fact I don’t think there is a direct translation for depression in any other language. So the concept of depression that we have comes directly out of Hippocrates. It’s a direct line of descent from, you know, this, and it’s also a very internal idea that is from within the self, you know, so it started with, you know, there’s some imbalance of black bile, you know, all the way to an imbalance of serotonin. And, you know, it’s, it has little to do, again, it’s more about the internal rather than the external. But when you look at different languages, you know, you’ll find words that correspond to symptoms that are clearly involve depression, they’ll describe like lethargy, lassitude, you know, feeling sick. So there’s the somatic symptoms, you know, sadness, anger as well, but they’ll often be tied to specific individuals in specific situations. So for instance, in Trinidad, there’s this word, and I don’t know if I’m pronouncing I’ve never heard the word pronounced, but it looks like it’s spelled tabanka t-a-b-a-n-k-a. Yeah, it’s specifically you know, it’s an associate with lethargy, low self esteem. And it’s specifically tied to men who have been left by their wives for another man. In Chuukese, which is a culture I work with, there’s this term called amudamun , which is involves anger and despondency, and also is associate with behaviors like running away from home or refusing to eat. And it’s specifically tied to situations where a younger person, usually a younger person, is in conflict with a higher status person, usually an older kinsmen, and they’re not getting what they need, and so they become amudamun. And it actually means that they’re inciting the pain that they feel into the person who they feel hurt by.

… 11:42
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Curt Widhalm 11:43
So what I’m taking out of this is knowing English causes depression, that…

Dr. Kristen Syme 11:52
Yeah, well, you know, it’s there’s this idea, I think it’s from the philosopher Ian Hacking of verbal contagions. That something didn’t exist until someone said it existed. Now that obviously, that’s not true. Depression, I believe that depression is universal. But different languages have different ways of slicing reality. So it’s not that you know, depression doesn’t occur in these cultures. Clearly, what’s being described in these different types in these different words are clearly what we call depression, they’re just more specific, more fine grained. Whereas maybe we have this more abstracted term and that has to do with maybe the medical model and just our own history. Because words, they serve purposes in culture. So it just isn’t the case. So in a lot of cultures, you know, they don’t have a medical model. Now, you might seek treatment for depression in other ways, especially when it’s tied to somatic symptoms. You know, shamans, for instance, in many cultures, they treat the somatic symptoms of depression and anxiety, but also realizing that it has these other social causes. And in fact, a lot of what shamans do is help resolve social conflicts, in addition to providing other sorts of medicine. So depression, it’s not caused by the English language, but it certainly makes us think about it differently. Language… Oh, I heard this great quote, recently, I think Vidkun Quisling, the philosopher said that language helps us go into, I’m gonna get it wrong, but it like language helps us to explore like, other aspects of reality, or other aspects of our mind. And that’s kind of how I see it.

Katie Vernoy 13:32
When you’re talking about the ways that people define depression so tightly, it’s around it’s very situational. It’s, it’s a pattern of behaviors that happen very or or symptoms or, or experiences that happen, whether it’s a man being left by his wife, or, or a young person being kind of bullied or not getting what they need from a person in a higher level of power. To me, it feels like that’s a lot more helpful than kind of this blanket, umbrella depression, you know, and I think I was thinking about the the conversation Curt and I had on an episode it was called, is it burnout or depression? And for me, it was like, well, burnout is depression, but it’s a specific type. And it’s very, you know, like, there’s a, it’s a, it’s a subset. So it sounds like, you know, that actually is kind of what you’re talking about is looking at if it’s situational, understanding what the situation is, and how that situation impacts the individual and what all the context is, that’s actually way more helpful. And we’ve been dancing around kind of the medical model and the the chemical imbalance and the individual responsibility for kind of the structural concerns. But why do you think that we’ve gotten so broad in describing anything that feels bad and and lowers our energy level and our level of self esteem and just made this big umbrella: depression. Like why?

Dr. Kristen Syme 15:06
I think because it’s common. I think it’s like everyone is experiencing it. I think it’s I think it’s a testament to the modern world. Like, just even if you’ve not have not been clinically depressed, per se, you haven’t, you haven’t gone over that threshold. Most people do experience, you know, some symptoms some of the time. I just think it’s so common that yeah, it’s and we can all relate and It’s just something a lot of people can relate to. And the destigmatize. I mean, I wouldn’t say it’s like totally destigmatized, but I think the fact that so many people are able, are feeling more free to say like, I feel depressed. That’s my impression, I might be wrong about that, actually. But my impression is that people feel more free to say that now and to recognize, you know, to recognize those feelings, like, I feel lethargic, I need to like step back. And, you know, because I’m feeling, you know, burned out. So yeah, I think there was a couple of things going on there. But I think it’s something that is really common and pervasive.

Curt Widhalm 16:11
I want to go back to what you were talking about earlier, as far as, you know, the not being evidence of chemical imbalances, and getting a little bit more into that, because this seems to be something that is just readily accepted now in a lot of Western psychiatry, and a lot of by extension, Western psychotherapy. Where are you coming at with this? This has got like some, some fighting the whole system here going on.

Dr. Kristen Syme 16:40
Yeah, it’s crazy. Because the idea that that monoamines an imbalance of monoamines are the cause of depression goes back to the first generation of antidepressants, which were discovered by accident, actually. They just happened to have an impact on monoamines on mono pathways. There are some issues there. So you can there people are researchers have experimentally induced monoamine depletion, but it doesn’t cause depression. You take any depressants, and the chemical action works within minutes, but it doesn’t work for several weeks. So there’s something going on here where it’s not just a simple chemical imbalance. And actually, if you go look, I recently went back to look at the old school Prozac commercials, you know, which is really the source. I wouldn’t, I don’t think it’s the only source there are several sources. But you know, the little pebble hopping along with the butterfly, it actually says I’m pretty sure says depression isn’t, there’s like something at the bottom. It’s basically like, not exactly like what we’re saying. It’s not exactly…

Katie Vernoy 17:50
Some disclaimer.

Dr. Kristen Syme 17:51
Yeah, something where it’s like, we actually don’t know what causes depression. And it’s like, wow, I never noticed that disclaimer before. But I definitely remember just that that rock, being really bummed out, and then hopping around with that butterfly after it took Prozac. So…

Katie Vernoy 18:09
Oh, how funny. In the, in the article I was reading, it was kind of the comparison of like, a headache isn’t a deficiency of aspirin. And I thought that was just like, whoa, duh. You know, and I think it’s, I think it’s been something where it’s been so ingrained and taught to a lot of folks who are in the profession and, and, and potentially even medical doctors have become kind of complicit in this pursuing of medicine as the answer. And this isn’t a chemical imbalance, like it feels like this is, it was eye opening to me. I mean, I don’t know that I’ve been like pro medicine all the way from the beginning. Like, I think I’ve been, you know, if I’ve held it, I think, appropriately within a treatment plan, and I’m not a doctor, so I don’t make that recommendation anyway. But but what are the implications of this? Because it seems like we’re not doing good enough treatment, if we’re getting something that’s marginally effective, and the the incidences of anxiety, depression and suicidality is not going down.

Dr. Kristen Syme 19:29

Katie Vernoy 19:29
And so what do we need to be doing here? Because it seems like we are we are following a very wrong path if if we’re completely ill informed, or actively misinformed about depression, at the very least, but certainly some of these other things if we’re looking at them as individual rather than systemic based. So what should we what should we do? How do we fix this?

Dr. Kristen Syme 19:52
I don’t know. I wish I, I wish I knew but it’s sort of like one of these. It’s kind of like how we all know that DSM is a poor, you know, construct of mental disorders. But we just everyone just keeps using it, you know, we just kind of keep chugging along with it. I think a doctors have known, you know, at least some doctors have known for some time that, you know, the chemical imbalance isn’t exactly true. There was one person who called it, this was back in the early 2000s, I can’t remember who it was, but the psychiatrist called it a metaphor. And so we’ll just keep using this metaphor of chemical imbalance. And like, I don’t think it was most people aren’t thinking of it as a metaphor. They’re taking it literally. And I don’t know, I don’t know what to do about it. I wish I knew, but it’s just, you know, like, there are these narratives in society, these stories that are told and perpetuated. And I think the only way to, you know, confront or combat those stories is just to tell a new story.

Curt Widhalm 20:55
Even beyond depression, some of your other articles that we’ve seen, and I believe that it was the first one that I came across your research was around, this doesn’t just apply to depression, there’s a lot in the DSM, that’s just people having reactions to situations that when you kind of look at it kind of makes sense, like, oh, people are going to be weird after being at war. Like, that’s make sense, when you put it that way. What what has been kind of the, the reaction that you’ve been seeing from more of your work being put out there, and kind of some of these pop psychology, your general articles I’ve seen, you know, Joe Rogan, tweet your articles before. So like, you’re developing a little bit of a following. I’m sure that there’s some responses that you’re getting there, too.

Dr. Kristen Syme 21:46
You know, it’s shockingly, mostly positive. That was not the case a couple years ago, when it first started, especially with the suicidality stuff. I think one commentator referred to me in my PhD advisor, Ed Hagen, a psychopaths.

Katie Vernoy 22:05

Dr. Kristen Syme 22:06
Which I was kind of like, I, you know, you hit a nerve, and it’s like, wow, I mean, I didn’t like that. But it was also kind of like, you know, I definitely took that in. But it’s gotten better. I think, especially as I published more, as we published more, just sort of refining like clarifying what it is we’re actually saying, as opposed to, because people will hear the, you know, hear us say, like, depression is not a disease, and we’re thinking, they’re thinking that we’re trying to say, well, you just need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you know, they’re they’re…

Katie Vernoy 22:40

Dr. Kristen Syme 22:41
You know, jumping to conclusions that we didn’t necessarily, that we didn’t say, aren’t arguing for. But that’s going to happen when you’re saying something new. Because, you know, the chemical imbalance model, one of the goal from advocates and drug companies, we wanted to destigmatize cause of when people would be prescribed, but you know, advocates who, whose hearts were in the right place, you know, they thought it would, it would work by making it more like, you know, it’s not your fault if you get pancreatic cancer, so it’s not your fault, if you, you know, get depressed. And we’re not saying it’s your fault, either. So somehow, if you’re saying, in some people’s minds, if you’re saying X, it, therefore means Y. And so just just needing to clarify those things. And it has, I think we’ve gotten better, and I’ve gotten better at communicating what it is we’re actually saying and what it is, we’re not saying.

… 23:34

Katie Vernoy 23:36
So I’m now super curious about the suicidality stuff that meant that you were a psychopath. So tell us a little bit more about what you found about suicidality.

Dr. Kristen Syme 23:46
So well, the theory that that I’ve worked on, is that and hold on to your heads, because this is what it can be framed in different ways. But we’re on what we’re saying is that it’s a credible, it’s an honest signal of need. Now, why? Now why would that be, like terrifying to people? Because another way to put it that people don’t like, but it’s just sort of a flip side is that it’s a form of blackmail, that you’re signaling like, I’m going to I’m going to hurt myself if you don’t help me, if you don’t give me attention. I hate that terminology. Because I, I’ve actually heard it used by people who I’m explaining it to and they’re saying, oh, you know, teenage girls who attempt suicide, they just want attention. And I’m like, how… did you not hear anything I just said? So, I because I feel that too. I’m like, that’s not what I mean, at all. It’s not because maybe they do need that attention. What’s wrong with that? Maybe they’re being neglected. But the work that I’ve done looking at suicide, suicidality, and actually, what we’re talking about here isn’t suicide death, which is far less common than suicidality being suicidal ideation, thoughts of suicide and suicide attempts. So I think for women in the US aged about 20 to 25, there are 100 suicide attempts for every one suicide death. So some people that’s when people have been like, oh, drama queens, and I’m like, why aren’t we talking more about, like why women feel like they have to send these kinds of messages to be helped, to get the help they need. And when you actually look at what causes suicidality, it’s assault, sexual assault. In my data, it was forced marriages, which is, you know, essentially a form of rape. It’s like you’re being exploited by your family, oftentimes. You’re being forced into a marriage to that they’re getting some benefits at your expense. And so why is it that women are sending, you know, have to send these messages because they’re being exploited and abused? And? Yeah, I think that I don’t have a problem saying that. But I think it scares people, like people just have a, they just automatically feel like, Oh, if that person doesn’t really want to die, then, you know, then they trivialize it. But in my mind are actually just making people have to send stronger signals that they want to die to get help.

Curt Widhalm 26:19
It seems like a really common theme through your research is that you’re pushing back against these universal explanations of everybody’s human behavior ever into really simplistic terms. That what you’re saying is that humans are complex, and that there’s a lot of reasons that people do a lot of different things.

Dr. Kristen Syme 26:40

Curt Widhalm 26:41
And I’m wondering, you know, as I’m kind of coming to this conclusion about all of your life’s work, but…

Katie Vernoy 26:52
Nutshell it.

Curt Widhalm 26:53
Just to nutshell this, yeah, I’m wondering if if this is just kind of like a inherent in Western academia of, you know, trying to come up with these global truths that are supposed to apply to everybody. And that’s where a lot of these disagreements come from, is that because we’re, you know, whoever has the loudest research, or whoever has the broadest definition of everything that kind of fits everywhere that, that gets held as truths within academia, that then gets passed on to each subsequent generation of students. And it’s just kind of accepted as fact.

Dr. Kristen Syme 27:29
Yeah, and that’s especially problematic when, yeah, because we want to come up with, you know, the theory or the explanation. But one issue with that, too, is that a lot of these, you know, sweeping explanations of say, suicidality are based on white European samples. And yeah, they get passed down. And then it turns out, you know, maybe that when you look elsewhere, that that those theories aren’t really supported.

Curt Widhalm 27:56
Or even taught as like, well, here’s ways that other cultures don’t fit into this model that’s being hailed as the universal truth that, and I think some of academia is getting a little bit better about this. But it so much of cultural education, especially in western mental health education seems to be here’s the rule. And then here’s these other cultures that just kind of have their own things that don’t fit within the rules.

Dr. Kristen Syme 28:26
Yep. Yes, the other, the other sort of, you know, the exotic-sized other who is a little bit quirky, or, you know, the, you know, there’s sort of the western model, and then there’s the, you know, maybe there’s this, you know, there’ll be presented as some, you know, far flung, you know, tribal group who, you know, does things a little differently. And that’s just, you know, oh, humans are complex, but then it’s never really absorbed into the theory or into that discipline.

Katie Vernoy 28:57
I just keep coming back to this idea that the way that we’re trained has been extremely short sighted, very monolithic, and looking at a single culture and applying it way too broadly. And, and I just keep thinking of the Big Pharma war chests that are benefited by therapists not doing what we can do to resolve the actual contextual problems, so that people keep coming to medicine that is a bandaid that actually isn’t solving the problem. And so to me, I think, and I’m trying to see if I’m getting to a question here, because we are, I feel like I could talk about this all day, but we are getting to the end of our episode here. But I, I’m just curious, is there, you know, whether it’s with you know, kind of talking about the shamans that solve the contextual issues as well as provide medicine, stuff like that. Is there, are there places where people are doing a better job than in kind of the Western psychological treatment tranche of people? Like, is there some, is there a model for us to look at where people are actually doing a good job at this?

Dr. Kristen Syme 30:14
That’s a great question. I don’t know it, maybe someone, an anthropologist has written about this, and I haven’t seen it. But yeah, I don’t, you know, because anytime you say, Oh, this is the model, you know, you’re gonna find holes, you’re gonna find, you know, it doesn’t work for everybody, or someone’s abusing their power, or, you know, maybe it worked for this person, but not that person. I really, I, in my mind, the way forward is just to look at different models, because we’re not going to be able, you know, those models, they work for those cultures in that context.

Katie Vernoy 30:49

Dr. Kristen Syme 30:50
Usually, they’re, they’re smaller societies where people are living with kin, or, you know, they’re not highly structured, you know, corporate environments, per se. But yeah, I think the way forward is just to look at a range of examples, in maybe, you know, coming up with something novel, potentially, because we are living in this world, that is novel. I mean, there’s novelty all around us that like evolutionarily novel, also, within our lifetimes, novel ways of interacting, like what we’re doing right now. So yeah, I think it’s going to involve creativity, and, and just exploration.

Curt Widhalm 31:30
I think even from a policy and implementation approach, it’s giving the freedom to individually treat people with a lot of these contexts. That a lot of policy towards sort of decisions or, you know, here’s a novel problem throw CBT at it, that doesn’t take into effect a lot of these kinds of things, nor necessarily which aspects of CBT. That’s several different episodes that we’ll have down the road. But but it’s, it’s treating everybody as if they’re monolithic parts of the same culture with the same cultural influences. Where can people find you and follow your kind of book?

Dr. Kristen Syme 32:18
So I still haven’t set up my website. So I don’t have a website. I’ve been meaning to get to it. But I I am on Twitter, you can follow me on Twitter. I think it’s just my name. Kristen Syme. I’m also on Google Scholar. So I put everything up on Google Scholar, you shouldn’t have any access issues, there’s no pay wall. It’s all it’s all there. So yeah, follow me. I’ll follow you back.

Curt Widhalm 32:44
And we’ll include links to those in our show notes at And get your tickets to Therapy Reimagined. 2021 where Dr. Syme will be uninterrupted by us, won’t be having us crack jokes all throughout…

Katie Vernoy 33:02
And digging in deeper…

Curt Widhalm 33:03
And digging in deeper. Very excited to be having that September 23 through 25th. And check out our website, to see what formats that we ultimately end up in this year. We’re hoping to have some people there this year, and who knows where we’re going to be at with COVID guidelines at that time. So the most up to date, check out our websites, follow us on our social media. And until next time, I’m Curt Widhalm, with Katie Vernoy and Dr. Kristen Syme.

… 33:33
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