How Culture Impacts Conversations Around Mental Health

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There are thousands of different cultures around the world. They will often be our first social introduction, as our families care for us before sending us to school where the context of our family’s life is measured against the wider social community. Cultural paradigms demand certain conduct from the people within them, but what happens when the culture has an inherently negative view of a person’s illness?

As the conversation around mental illness opens up, so too are discussions regarding how people in certain cultures are encouraged or discouraged from addressing or caring for their mental well-being. With all the information about mental illness around these days, you wouldn’t think that it would take an online masters in counseling psychology to understand mental health and how important it is. Yet some fundamentally traditionalist cultures practice open stigma against mental illness and those who suffer from it.

Social Perception of Mental Illness

It’s easy to judge people who aren’t supportive of mental illness. After all, we see people suffering and naturally want to help, after all, we’re social creatures. It’s easy to forget that every culture has its history, and where that history has enforced standards of orthodoxy, obedience, or acting out of necessity (such as cultures with extensive war trauma), mental health or illness just simply hasn’t been a concern passed down through the generations. After all when your ancestors were constantly fleeing persecution at the hands of others, would they have had time to look after their mental wellness?

Some cultures just don’t consider mental illness to be a factor in life. There is very much a thought process of “What do you mean you can’t? I was in war and I did.” However, this mentality is not only damaging but it fails to take context into account. The preoccupation with life and death would be enough to stir anyone to action, regardless of mental or physical illness. People are capable of great things, breaking physical and mental limits, when pushed to self-preservation. Outside of that, however, everyone needs to be able to care for themselves, and this involves addressing and treating mental illness.

Addressing and Understanding Symptoms

Just like any illness, mental illness is present through symptoms that affect the patient physically and mentally. For example, schizophrenia is known to cause auditory and visual hallucinations. These hallucinations often coax interactions out of the person living with the condition, and while a culture that understands mental illness may be able to account for its presence, a culture steeped in superstition and religious ideology may mistake a schizophrenic’s interactions with their hallucinations, as spiritual or demonic. Oftentimes a person subjected to a religious leader’s intervention in this context may undergo further trauma that worsens the existing condition.

Aside from this, culture can also determine how a person talks about their symptoms in therapy. Recent research shows that people from Asian backgrounds are more likely to talk about their physical symptoms rather than their mental ones. This can often lead to erroneous diagnoses and exacerbated illness.

Sense of Belonging

One of the most well-known treatments for mental illness is social engagement. One of our most basic human needs is to feel like we belong. It is necessary for our survival and enriching our lives. However in certain cultures, the mentally ill are actively ostracized and othered. They are forced apart from their community and made to isolate. This can end up creating concentrated feelings of loneliness and worsening the severity of the mental illness, creating a vicious cycle of symptoms and ostracisation.

Resources

Mental illness can be addressed for many of us, but unfortunately for those living in countries where the culture is not supportive of mental illness, there is a distinct lack of resources to address their mental health. Care is scarce, and support is often expensive, with developed nations’ mental health services being 50 times more accessible on average.

Mental illness has been largely demystified in the developed world, but other countries and expatriates from those countries face significant stigma when admitting to or seeking assistance for mental illness. The struggle lies predominantly in exposing these cultures to mental illness, the science behind it, and bringing an understanding that will lead to constructive solutions.