Do the Chinese somatize depression? A cross-cultural study

Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol. 2001 Jun;36(6):287-93. doi: 10.1007/s001270170046.


Background: A large literature argues for the Chinese--whether in mainland China or elsewhere--being highly likely to express depression somatically, leading to predictable detection and diagnostic difficulties. If true, detection might be assisted if a set of somatic proxies of depression were identified, and this was the principal initial objective in mounting this study.

Methods: We studied two sets of depressed outpatients, one of Malaysian Chinese and the other of Australian Caucasians, matched by age and sex. We identified the prime symptom nominated by them when they first sought assistance, and required them to complete an inventory of both somatic and cognitive symptoms, and rank the three items they judged as most capturing their distress.

Results: The Chinese were distinctly more likely to nominate a somatic symptom as their presenting complaint (60% vs 13%), while the Australian subjects were more likely to nominate depressed mood, cognitive and anxiety items. Responses to the inventory established that the Chinese did score somewhat higher on a somatic set of items, but differed far more distinctly in being less likely to affirm cognitive items of depression, resulting in significantly lower total inventory scores. Variation across the contrast samples in acknowledging the presence of symptoms did not relate simply to the prevalences of those symptoms.

Conclusions: Our failure to identify a culture-specific somatic factor as a proxy of depression, together with establishing a high rate of somatic and related items (e. g. insomnia) in both samples, may largely reflect the phenomenon of 'corporization', whereby depressed patients irrespective of culture are more likely to experience and report in response to a 'somatosensory amplification' influence.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Australia / epidemiology
  • China / ethnology
  • Cross-Cultural Comparison*
  • Depression / complications*
  • Depression / ethnology*
  • Factor Analysis, Statistical
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Malaysia / epidemiology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Prevalence
  • Risk Factors
  • Somatoform Disorders / ethnology*
  • Somatoform Disorders / etiology*