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6 Culturally Sensitive Ways to Approach Mental Health

cultural competency and mental healthcare

Culture impacts every mental health patient—and every mental health practitioner. Culture is a key factor that we all bring to every interaction, and it can be especially influential in times of emotional distress.

How culture affects mental health

Culture, including beliefs, values, norms, and behaviors, affects how we experience and interpret the world, including the meaning we impart to mental illness. In a clinical setting, cultural meanings of mental illness can account for whether and how a patient:

  • Seeks or avoids treatment
  • Perceives and expresses symptoms
  • Copes with stress
  • Adheres to treatment plans
  • Attaches stigma to mental illness

Cultural factors that impact mental health

Cultural factors can play a role in the development of mental illness. Diverse communities are often unfairly burdened with social determinants associated with mental health conditions, including poverty, discrimination, and exposure to violence. Many of these same cultural groups encounter barriers to treatment such as mistrust of mental healthcare, language differences, and lack of access/insurance.

Culturally competent healthcare organizations and practitioners are better able to connect with patients to alleviate mistrust and create shared understanding (using professional mental health interpreters when appropriate). That shared understanding is the first step toward successful diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. Establishing an initial connection is particularly important.

Improving mental health management

Culturally competent mental health management begins with policies and procedures that address the needs of diverse populations, including hiring diverse staff and creating space for training and development. With a strong commitment to culturally sensitive healthcare, mental health providers can deliver better diagnoses and outcomes for patients with mental illness.

6 tips for managing mental health patients with cultural sensitivity:

  1. Ask non-judgmentally about the individual’s beliefs around and understanding of their illness.
  2. Don’t push individuals to accept a psychiatric diagnosis—build trust over time and use terms that are acceptable to them, including: "stress," "nerves," "sadness," "worries," etc.
  3. Consider describing mental illness as a biological disorder rather than a psychological problem or weakness.
  4. Ask if the patient observes any religious or traditional customs or practices that you should know about. Also ask about religion and spirituality in general, which can be a helpful source of support for those with mental health problems.
  5. If possible, request a referral for the individual to a mental health provider that speaks their language, and ideally is from the same cultural background.
  6. If a language concordant provider is not possible, be sure a professional interpreter is used when there is a language barrier. Don’t rely on family members to interpret.

Cultural competence is essential to reducing mental health disparities.

For more, watch this 5-minute video from WGBH: