The 89th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2020)

Cultural Change, Stress, and Mental Health in Palau, Micronesa


Anthropology, California State University, Sacramento

April 16, 2020 37, Platinum Ballroom Add to calendar

Men in the Republic of Palau, Micronesia, experience high rates of mental illness. Extensive research has shown that biological markers of illness are comparable to those elsewhere, ruling out a biological etiology particular to the indigenous population. This study tests a hypothesis that economic transformation from traditional subsistence to a money economy have upended gendered cultural roles, and have been particularly stressful for young men.

A sample of 69 Palauans (47 men and 22 woman) with a major mental illness diagnosis were assessed for symptoms, and were self- and externally-rated as to their gendered “role identity” and “role performance” in Palauan cultural practices and duties. Non-parametric ANOVA showed significant negative correlations between ratings of cultural performance and symptoms of mental illness, and were most pronounced among young men.

Indigenous Palauan life includes rule-bound participation in material reciprocity through structured cultural activities and events. Contemporary social status for young men follows from successful participation in customary reciprocity and in the “new” money economy. An inversion of occupational status has accompanied economic transformation such that formerly high-status roles like “fisherman” are now only practiced by those without money employment. Men experiencing mental illness are more likely to be engaged in the subsistence economy, and to struggle with the social and material demands of traditional reciprocal obligations. Our results indicate that high social competence required to satisfy customary obligations, coupled with a recent inversion in traditional male occupational roles has been particularly stressful for young men vulnerable to mental illness.

Funded in part by the Stanley Medical Research Institute (Bethesda MD)