Overcoming Cultural Barriers to Seeking Mental Health Support

Mental health support is an invaluable service, whether it’s accessed privately with a therapist, from a local community organisation, online, or through your organisation’s assistance programme. Yet people who have these options often hesitate to use them when they find themselves suffering from a mental health issue like depression, severe anxiety, an eating disorder, or a substance abuse problem.

Why? Often it’s a cultural barrier that deters people from seeking support. If this describes you or someone you know, read on for ways to overcome hesitancy and get the needed help.

mental health support

Cultural barriers are common

Although attitudes about mental health problems like depression have been changing, there can still be stigma attached to mental illness. You may find, or believe, that friends and family members see your struggles (or would see them) as a sign of weakness. You may fear being labelled. Pride can get in your way, too. You may believe that you should be able to handle any problem you have on your own.

Stigma can be especially strong in some cultural groups.

For many cultures across the globe, mental health concerns can still be a taboo subject with many cultures not talking or addressing mental health concerns for fear of being ostracised or outcasted from their cultural group. It may be a culture of silence where mental health issues are not spoken about, which perpetuates the ‘no talk’ rule through generations.

On the other hand, your culture may not see a diagnosis as something that needs to be ‘fixed’. For example, a psychiatric diagnosis or experience may be seen as severe in the west, whereas in the east, you are treated as though you are having a spiritual experience and supported through this process through religion or spirituality, rather than through the health care system.

In China, research shows around 95,000 people with mental health problems required professional psychological support, but fewer than 20.0% of them received relevant treatment. This can be due to reasons as not having access to treatment, not feeling as though their condition is severe enough, and family opposition to them seeking treatment.

Religious beliefs can pose barriers to seeking mental health care. Certain religious fundamentalists may be told their symptoms are a punishment, or demonic in origin and told to rely solely on their faith rather than accessing additional help. Usually this is less likely to happen within the west than the general population to avail themselves of mental health services – they may feel the health care system isn’t equipped to provide culturally sensitive care, or they may believe seeking psychiatric support goes against their religious beliefs.

In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) introduced Dubai’s first comprehensive mental health strategy, “Happy Lives, Healthy Communities,” in May, 2018 as part of the general Dubai Health Strategy 2016-2021. The strategy aims to make mental health services more accessible through legislation and improved service delivery, as well as by empowering patients and combating the social and cultural stigma surrounding mental illness. These measures signal a new focus on mental health care in the UAE, where psychology is still an emerging field. This new focus presents an opportunity to shape public perception of mental health care as it becomes more mainstream. Given the stigma associated throughout much of the Arab world with seeking psychological treatment and counselling, the efforts to expand mental health care in the Emirates could serve as an example of how to adapt psychotherapy to a cultural context distinct from the European context in which it originally developed.

Overcoming cultural barriers

If a cultural barrier is inhibiting you or a loved one from seeking needed help, there are a number of steps you can take to overcome it.

Remember that the mind and body are intimately connected. From a medical standpoint a mental illness is no different from a physical one. There’s no need to feel shame about seeking mental health care anymore than there is about seeing a doctor when you’re physically ill. A mental health problem isn’t something you caused. It’s something you need care for.

Educate and inform yourself. Whatever problem you’re having, countless others have also dealt with it and are dealing with it now. Look on the web, in social media, or locally for information, support groups, and advice. It’s helpful and reassuring to learn how not-alone you are and to hear about others’ experience with different therapeutic options.

Reach out to supportive friends or family. Talking things over with a trusted person can help get your problem out into the open, give you clarity about the best way to tackle it, and reassure you that you’re not alone.

Remember that you are not your illness. You are a whole being with abilities and talents, and you deserve to strive for a happy life. A disease, whether mental or physical, is a condition that you have. It doesn’t define you.

Seeking help

It can take a lot of courage to seek treatment for a mental health issue, and cultural stigmas make it even harder. Recognising the cultural and other barriers affecting you is a big step toward overcoming them. Don’t buy into stigmas, don’t put up barriers of your own, and if a loved one is struggling, encourage them to seek help and praise them when they do. Reaching out for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

This article on “Overcoming Cultural Barriers to Seeking Mental Health Support” was taken from the Lifeworks Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) library of resources available to all insured members with HanseMerkur health insurance plans. Please check it out to find other interesting and useful articles, pod casts and tips to help with your well-being or ask your local sales agent for more information about it.