Culture Counts

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Culture Counts

Culture Counts

Attitudes toward mental illness vary among individuals, families, ethnicities, cultures, and countries. Cultural and religious teachings often influence beliefs about the origins and nature of mental illness, and shape attitudes towards the mentally ill. Psychologists at Clinic Dr. Bita believe that understanding cultural differences, and their beliefs about mental illness is essential for building rapport in therapy; after all, we are not just individuals: our cultural roots matter.

People often think of mental health as a very personal matter that has to do only with the individual. However, mental illnesses and mental health in general are affected by the combination of biological and genetic factors, psychology, and society. An interesting aspect of society is its diversity in cultures and backgrounds that affect an individual’s mental health related experiences.

In social sciences, culture is an umbrella term which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society. Therefore, culture is directly related to human society, including the social experiences, ethics, attitudes, values and ways of life which are transmitted socially, rather than biologically.

Every culture has its own way of making sense of the highly subjective experience that is an understanding of one’s mental health. Each has its opinion on whether mental illness is real or imagined, an illness of the mind or the body or both, who is at risk for it, what might cause it, and perhaps most importantly, the level of stigma surrounding it. Culture also affects the way in which people describe their symptoms, such as whether they choose to describe emotional or physical symptoms. Essentially, it dictates whether people selectively present symptoms in a “culturally appropriate” way that won’t reflect badly on them.

For example, in some cultures depression is primarily manifested as physical ailment and only one who attempts to understand the culture can understand the presenting problem. In other words, do we see the tip of the iceberg, that is the presenting symptoms, or do we see the entire iceberg, that is the person as a whole including its cultural beliefs and values.

Some aspects of culture may also underlie culture-bound syndromes- sets of symptoms much more common in some societies than in others. More often, culture bears on whether people even seek help in the first place, what types of help they seek (whether that be by seeing a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, primary care practitioner, clergy member, or traditional healer, etc)., what types of coping styles and social supports they have, and how much stigma they attach to mental illness.

There is significant evidence to show that not only does culture play a significant role in terms of how we understand health and illness, but that different cultures perceive these differently and that these differences can play a key role in terms of how illness is managed. Views of illness causality range across the individual, the natural world and the social world, and every cultural group may see this differently.

Culture modifies our coping styles, or the ways that we cope with everyday problems and to more extreme types of adversity. Not only are there cultural variations in the types of stressors that people experience but the assessment of stressors also varies, as do the choice of responses to stressors.

Family is another important consideration within the discussion on culture and mental health because there are clear differences in the roles that families may play within different cultures. In many cultural groups, the extended family is often very involved in all aspects of the individual’s life, and for those contending with mental health problems and disorders the family can play a key support and provide a safe environment for recovery. However, family can also play a negative role if, for example, stigma and discrimination against the illness exists within the family. Family factors can either protect against, or contribute to the risk of developing a mental illness, as well as impact on recovery processes.

Cultural diversity and its impact on mental health has become an increasingly important issue in a globalised world where the interactions between cultures continue to grow exponentially. Cultural differences clearly impact different aspects of mental health, such as language, communication, the use of cultural and linguistic interpreters, the marginalization of traditional positive resources in the community, and the nature of cultural competency and other cross-cultural training that are important considerations for mental health practitioners.

While cultural differences do raise a number of significant issues in terms of working with mental health, they also provide a number of opportunities to work in unique and effective ways towards positive mental health. There are many opportunities to cultivate an empathetic and therapeutic cultural and societal approach to mental health. Increased awareness, education, and communication about mental health between cultural groups improve understanding about mental health and reduce stigmas.Thus, one must take a bio-psycho-social approach in understanding an individual and providing the best treatment.


Author: Maja Babic

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are not to be misinterpreted as medical, clinical, or any other professional advice. The views expressed are opinions and / or ideas founded on research and clinical experience. These views are meant to provoke awareness and inquiry into various issues, and thus, create an open-minded dialogue, civil discussion, and respectful debate among our readers. Any claims made are subject to change should new studies be conducted that disprove these claims.

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