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Cultural Effects and Perspectives on Mental Health

Culture has a massive impact both on the mental health struggles we face as well as the perspectives surrounding these struggles. The way the people around us expect us to behave can produce differing stressors amongst individuals, and thus change the mental health issues that are seen more in a culture or country. 


Cultural Conflict: Most commonly, people experience mental distress when their values or behaviors are incongruent with the social norms around them. Immigrants often report a feeling of demoralization about a year into living abroad for likely this reason.  


Social Norms: However, even adherence to specific norms can produce stress in individuals. The promoted sense of self-sacrifice in more collectivist cultures can cause resentment or burnout when people struggle to take care of themselves because they have always prioritized putting others first. In individualistic cultures, the need to be independent and achieving can cause a similar sense of burnout when people feel they cannot meet these expectations or struggle to see the value in their own work. 


Religion: Religion can also impact mental health. When religion serves as the grounds for alienation or prejudice from surrounding people, the resulting treatment can hinder well-being. In some religions as well, mental health may be seen as a weakness, further worsening one’s condition as they internalize the struggles they have. 


Family Ideals: Certain family factors can prevent people from developing mental health issues, or can increase the likelihood of this. When families are socially disadvantaged, experience overcrowding or severe marital conflict, mental illness may be more common. When families are supportive, have good sibling relationships, and express low levels of negative emotions toward mental illness, people tend to reap the benefits of decreased mental issues. These specific family factors do vary across ethnic groups, but not enough research  has been done to predict how specifically culture impacts them. 


Regardless of whether the cause of  mental health disorder lies in culture, culture undeniably affects how people deal with mental health problems, receive treatment, and are in general viewed by surrounding communities. Understanding these effects could potentially help people prepare themselves to deal with the resulting issues they may experience, and thus insulate them from the more negative effects certain attitudes can have. 


Different Coping Strategies: Research seems to support the ideas that culture fosters different methods of coping among people. For example, the influence of Buddhism in Thailand encourages a level of self-control and emotional restraint that increases Thai children’s reliance on covert coping mechanisms, like staying quiet, as opposed to more overt methods of yelling and running away.  However, cultures also give rise to several healthy coping mechanisms that can be implemented by anyone, anywhere. Check out this linked article to explore more about how different cultural practices and coping can have a positive impact on your life: Cultural Differences in Coping Strategies


Meanings  of Mental Health: What constitutes a mental health problem differs across cultures as well. Patients present the symptoms of their illness to clinicians in a way that reflects their cultural values (for example, Asian patients discuss more physical, rather than emotional symptoms), even if they possess more symptoms than those. People’s perspectives on whether mental illness is real, whether it is caused by the physical body or the mind, and whether it is deserving of sympathy also rely on the deep-rooted attitudes culture imposes on them about these topics. 


Treatment Seeking: When cultures normalize mental health discussions, people tend to be more likely to seek help professionally and communally. However, if mental health is stigmatized, and those experiencing issues with it are discriminated against or seen as weak, people are less likely to seek treatment and experience higher rates of extreme distress, disability, and even possibly suicide. Research shows that racial minorities in general are less likely to seek healthcare, though if this is attributable to the potential for discrimination from non-understanding professional or communal stigmatization is unknown. 


Cultural differences also manifest themselves in the ways professionals treat their patients. Clinicians and patients from different cultures have different understandings of how each party should act in therapy and what the appropriate options are for treatment. Clinicians also pursue treatment contextualized within the cultural setting they were trained in, meaning that they may be more likely to disagree with the importance of a patient’s symptoms and misunderstand their various needs and fears if that patient is from a different cultural background than them. However the continued education of clinicians, as well as the modification of DSM-IV currently underway that encourages the acknowledgment of bias and flexibility in preferred treatments can help negate the effects of these cultural differences. 


Overall, though these cultural differences are important to recognize to help individuals seek the most comprehensive and informed care possible, the unique methods towards wellness cultures have can also provide inspiration for people to incorporate less-known coping practices into their routine. Check out our other article on this topic to learn how these differences can also positively contribute to a wellness strategy.

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