The Effect of Culture on Mental Health

Madai Martinez, Reporter

In Ghana, a boy sits shackled by a chain under a tree. He has been there for three years. He is quiet. Sitting holding his knees, his figure is small and his eyes seem empty. His mother says he used to be a great boy, but something changed in him. He smoked marijuanna with his friends, and from there he was aggressive and would attack her. The solution: His father decided to chain him under the tree near the family hut. For families in Ghana, chaining their loved ones who suffer mental illnesses or substance abuse is a common practice, as they believe that faith is all it takes for healing. Mental illness is stigmatised and under-resourced, just like most of the world. 

According to the Center of Medicare and Medicaid Services’ Office of Minority Health (CMS), depression is reported as the most common mental health condition among minorities. Even though the boy hasn’t been diagnosed by a professional, the symptoms he displays point towards depression, but the lack of knowledge and resources is what impedes his mother from getting treatment for him.

As stated by Mental Health First Aid, a national program that teaches skills to respond to mental health illnesses and substance abuse, there are four main ways culture can impact mental health: cultural stigma, understanding symptoms, community support, and resources. Every culture has a different view on mental health illness, and some cultures consider mental illness a weakness or something to hide, making it difficult for people to open up about their mental issues. For instance, a recent study by the National Latino and Asian American Study (NLAAS), found that most young Asian Americans avoided seeking professional help based on the negative stigma surrounding mental health issues in their community.

“I can absolutely say that within my community, there’s a shame towards being mentally ill,” said senior Alexis Munoz, who is Hispanic. “It’s hard to know who to talk to without judgment.”

In a report by the Public Health Advocate, an undergraduate publication in UC Berkeley featuring health topics with local, national, and international perspectives, cultural factors often determine how much support people have from their families and communities in seeking help. This is particularly important because mental illnesses should not be ignored and left untreated – doing so significantly impacts a person’s quality of life and can cause severe distress and secondary health effects. 

“It’s hard to get professional help, not only because it’s expensive, but also if they can relate to you,” said senior Sally Catalan, who is also Hispanic. “There’s many differences between a White therapist and a Mexican patient.” 

Many minorities struggle to find a therapist who understands their cultural background or specific concerns. According to American Psychological Association Center for Workforce Studies, 87.5 percent of mental health providers are White, and only 3.6 percent are Hispanic, 2.7 percent are Black,1.7 percent are Asian/Pacific Islander, and fewer than 1 percent are Native American.

“It’s hard to tell when you need help,” Munoz said. “One moment you’re fine and the next you don’t even know what’s wrong.”

In accordance with The Commonwealth Fund, a private U.S. foundation, minorities in the United States are less likely to get mental health treatment or will wait until symptoms are severe before looking for help. In fact, only 60 percent of adults from minority groups have a regular health care provider. As stated by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit organization that focuses on major health care issues facing the nation, without a healthcare provider the threat of more serious health issues can affect people in general.

“Mental health is so important, it affects our communities on a large scale,” Catalan said. “It’s time to talk about it and act on it.”