When It Comes to Matters of Mental Health, Culture Counts!

San Diego has long prided itself on its diverse population. Our community is truly a melting pot of cultures, ethnicities and heritages. Culture—our beliefs, norms, values, languages and traditions—influences how we perceive many aspects of life, including health and illness. Our attitudes toward mental illness, in particular, are shaped by our cultural beliefs and influence whether or not we seek help, what kind of help and from whom.

People from many cultural backgrounds experience physical symptoms as well as mental ones when they are depressed. Encouraging them to seek medical care can be helpful, especially if health providers ask about how they are feeling and coping.

Americans from European backgrounds are often more inclined to seek care from health professionals, while people from other backgrounds may turn first to religious leaders such as pastors, to natural helpers from their own communities or to family members. There is no single path to wellness. Anyone can help people recognize that mental health problems are not a result of personal weakness or character flaw. According to Christina Nip, NICOS Chinese Health Coalition, “There is a common Chinese saying that ‘family shame should not be made public.’ This belief causes a general reluctance to admit to mental illnesses and seeking help. On the flipside, the Chinese concept of family includes an extensive network of people that extends beyond the nuclear family. From the standpoint of mental health, this is a source of great experienced and trustworthy support and helps alleviate economic and mental health stressors. There is a sense that one’s family is a wide safety net that one can fall back on during hard times.”

Regardless of our cultural makeup, it’s up to us to notice warnings signs that a family member or friend is unwell, physically or emotionally, and encourage them to get help. Culturally competent providers can understand their patients’ individual situations as well as the cultural context that shapes their symptoms and treatment preferences. In San Diego County there are many cultural agencies that can help, such as the Union of Pan Asian Communities, Operation Samahan, Kalusugan + Kalusugan Community Center and La Maestra Community Health Centers. VisitUp2SD.org to find contact information for these agencies and more.

Interesting Fact!

Different cultures have varying ways of describing mental illness. For example, in the Punjab culture, sinking heart is a condition of distress that is experienced as a physical sensation in the heart or chest. It has some characteristics of depression but also resembles a cardiovascular disorder. It is thought to be caused by excessive heat, exhaustion, worry or social failure.