It is a commonly held belief among mental health care providers that patients from the Western Pacific region with major depressive disorder (MDD) and anxiety disorders disproportionately present with somatic symptoms as opposed to emotional symptoms. Cultural norms, such as the stigma associated with psychiatric disorders, may lead members of this population to ignore the emotional aspects of these disorders or deny the presence of psychological symptoms. Empirical support is provided by the lower prevalence of these disorders in some Western Pacific nations in relation to the rest of the world. For example, MDD rates in India (9%), Japan (2%), China (2% to 4%), Malaysia (8%) and Australia (3%) are generally lower than rates in the United States (16%) and worldwide (10%). These discrepancies may be the result of missed diagnoses. Misdiagnosis is related to the increased somatization of MDD symptoms in these populations. As defined by the WHO, the Western Pacific region consists of 37 countries with a total population of 1.8 billion people (1.3 billion in China alone) with diverse cultural backgrounds and demographic profiles, which makes the issue of cultural effects on MDD diagnosis more complex.
Patients with MDD or anxiety disorders worldwide often present with somatic symptoms, which frequently accompany psychological symptoms. For example, in a recent report of pooled data from Canada, scores on the Somatic Symptoms Inventory, the 17-item Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression (HAM-D17), and the Hamilton Rating Scale for Anxiety (HAM-A) were used to evaluate the association between somatic symptoms and MDD. Of the 2,191 patients randomly enrolled in the study, 78% reported moderate-to-severe fatigue and weakness. Painful physical symptoms commonly occur in patients with anxiety disorders as well. In a European study, painful physical symptoms were reported by 28% of those without anxiety disorders and 45% of those with anxiety disorders.