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A Primer on Cross-Cultural Issues in Mental Health


By Dr. Donna Ferguson, Psychologist with the WSIB Psychological Trauma Program

Attitudes toward mental illness vary among individuals, families, ethnicities, cultures, and countries. Cultural backgrounds can often influence individual’s beliefs about mental illness and shape their attitudes toward being mentally ill or their view of individuals suffering with mental illness. It can also be an influencing factor in how people experience stigma related beliefs about mental illness. It is therefore important to understand individual and cultural beliefs related to mental illness in order to implement effective approaches to overall assessment and care.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”.

Individuals interpret and experience mental health symptoms differently based on various cultural backgrounds. For example, some ethno-cultural groups are more likely to have their emotional problems manifested into physical problems. Also, stigma within a culture varies according to the cultural backgrounds of the community.

Social factors may also have an influence over a course of someone’s life and can increase or decrease an individual’s risk of developing a mental health problem or illness or even prevent illness. Some increase vulnerability while others have factors that might bring on illness or prolong illness. Some cultural vulnerability factors that might include situations like immigration or migration, which can trigger issues related to life stresses, trying to fit in, leaving family behind and losing family support during a difficult and stressful time. This can increase risk for mental health issues.

How do we pay attention to cultural factors in Mental Health?

It is important to assess and identify cultural differences in mental health to be able to help those dealing with stressful situations. It is also important to learn about specific cultural factors of those we are treating so we can be sensitive to the client’s individual needs. This will inform us of what to pay attention to in order to address the client’s needs appropriately and to be able to be sensitive in terms of placing our own values on the client.

Read more about mental health in different cultures on our blog:

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