Culture & Mental Health

Updated: Feb 1

If you’ve been watching news these past few weeks, (or months), chances are you’ve stumbled across the phrase “cultural competence.” It’s also likely that you’ve seen this phrase lumped into statements such as:

  • We need to increase cultural competence in…

  • Cultural competence is important in achieving equity in…

  • We need culturally competent mental health providers because…

However, have you ever wondered why cultural competence is important?

To answer this question, we first need to tackle what cultural competence is.

Cultural competence is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “the integration and transformation of knowledge about individuals and groups of people into specific standards, policies, practices, and attitudes used in appropriate cultural settings to increase the quality of services; thereby producing better outcomes”.

Likewise, there is also the idea of cultural humility; a term which one study suggests may be a more effective name for the concept as “competence” suggests expertise whereas this isn’t defined achievement; it’s imperative that clinicians continue to learn these concepts.

This raises the next set of questions. How does culture impact mental health? Why is it important?

For starters, culture can influence the way an individual may exhibit symptoms of mental illness.

For instance, Asian Americans may focus more on the physical symptoms, as opposed to emotional symptoms, associated with a mental illness when trying to communicate their symptoms with a clinician. As a result, a therapist who is not conscious of the influence of culture on the manifestation of mental illness may unintentionally misdiagnose the client.

Culture can also influence the way an individual may seek treatment.

As noted in this study, individuals from certain cultures may be more comfortable expressing their concerns regarding mental health to members of the clergy or spiritual healers; individuals who may not necessarily be equipped to handle all types of mental illness. As a result, the study suggested that one solution may be to reach out to these community figures and provide resources that may help individuals from minority groups gain better access to mental health care.

While it may not be the only barrier for minority groups seeking mental health services, as other factors such as cost of services can come into play, it provides food for thought. Not only will increasing cultural humility increase the accessibility of care, but it can improve the quality of care.

Perhaps it’s time to learn more about the intersection between culture and mental health.

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