Everyone is different, and it’s important to acknowledge and respect these differences. It’s also critical that we understand those differences when it comes to mental health and substance use disorder treatment. Our attitudes, beliefs, traditions, sexual orientation, gender identity, values, race and language all affect how we view and experience the world. By understanding people, clinicians are better able to provide the most appropriate care.
Below are a few examples of cultural differences that can have a big impact on mental health and treatment outcomes. Keep in mind, everyone has a unique background, so these broad examples only scratch the surface.
Gender differences: Many cultures conform to the stereotypical, males should be masculine, and females should be feminine. It’s not uncommon to hear that males “should not” exhibit physical or mental weakness. Extensive public health campaigns have encouraged men to seek medical help. They’re also encouraged to express feelings and vulnerabilities and seek mental health help if needed. Unfortunately, many remain resistant.
Racial and ethnic differences: Studies on race and ethnicity show that Caucasian Americans focus on the biological and medical nature of mental illness and substance use disorder, but Latino and African American cultures tend to connect illness to spiritual, moral and social explanations.
Generational differences: Younger people of all cultures in Western countries are more likely to seek help for mental health problems. Older individuals, especially those who have emigrated from very different cultures, are less likely to change their attitudes and much less likely to seek help.
Mental health providers are working to understand and overcome some of the social and cultural barriers to treatment. Clinicians start with a self-assessment of how their own attitudes and beliefs can influence their interactions with people who are different from them. To improve their helpfulness clinicians, work with translators and community organizations that support vulnerable or disadvantaged populations. Clinicians also regularly consult with colleagues on how best to gain rapport and trust with people who might otherwise be difficult to communicate with. Most of all, mental health providers want to ensure they are taking cultural, racial, educational, language and societal factors into account so they can deliver the right care to all individuals.
It’s not just mental health professionals. There are things everyone can do to overcome cultural barriers to start a conversation about mental well-being. You can start by educating yourself, which is what you’re doing by reading this, then you can ask how you can help. As behavioral health professionals, we know it will take people from all walks of life in every community to help break down the barriers. It involves addressing everything from employment to housing stability to insurance status to proximity to services to culturally responsive care — all of which have an impact on mental health.
Dr. Julie Wood is the medical director for Optum Idaho, a health care company who manages the outpatient benefits for the Idaho Behavioral Health Plan for Idaho Medicaid members and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. She is a board certified general adult psychiatrist with eight years post graduate clinical and administrative experience in community, managed care and residential level of care experience.