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Research into cultural variations

Article featuring three academic studies on cultural variations on attitudes to mental health issues.

We will now look at some studies on variations of how mental health issues are viewed in different cultures.

Why cultural beliefs are so important

Attitudes toward mental health vary significantly between individuals, families, ethnicities, cultures, and countries. Moreover, cultural and religious teachings often influence beliefs about the origins and nature of mental health issues, and can further affect attitudes towards the mentally ill.

A key cultural belief affecting attitudes towards mental health issues is that of social stigma. In other words the extent to which mental health issues are seen as:

‘…a sign of disgrace or infamy’ (OED 2018)
In addition to influencing whether mentally ill individuals experience social stigma, beliefs about mental health issues can affect patients’ readiness and willingness to seek and adhere to treatment (Unite for Sight 2015). As a result it is imperative to comprehend individual and cultural beliefs about mental health issues in order to implement effective approaches to mental health care.
Regardless of this each individual’s experience with mental health issues is unique. The following studies offer a sample of cultural perspectives on mental health issues.

Abdullah and Brown (2011)

Research into ethno-cultural beliefs and mental health issue stigma conducted by Abdullah et al. (2011) shows that different cultural groups regard mental health issue in widely varying ways. Some Native American tribes do not stigmatise mental health issues at all, while at the other extreme, Asian cultures tend to stigmatise mental health issues as something shameful. There are additional factors that can affect the stigmatisation of mental health issues these include the perceived cause of the mental health issue.

Phelan (2005)

In a 2003 study, Chinese Americans and European Americans were shown a scenario where an individual was diagnosed with schizophrenia or a major depressive disorder. Participants were then told that experts had concluded that the individual’s mental health issue was ‘genetic’, ‘partly genetic’, or ‘not genetic’ in origin, and participants were asked to rate how they would feel if one of their children dated, married, or reproduced with the participant in the scenario.
In general, the Chinese Americans in the study were less willing than the European Americans to support dating, marriage or reproduction with an individual with a mental health issue. However, whether or not there was a genetic attribution to the disorder had less of an influence on the Chinese Americans’ decision than it did on the European Americans, demonstrating that there was a different attitude towards the stigma of mental health issues in the two cultural groups’ (Unite for Sight 2015).

Carpenter-Song, Chu and Drake (2010)

Many studies have highlighted further significant differences in attitudes towards mental health issues among ethnic groups in the United States. Carpenter-Song, Chu and Drake (2010) led an intensive 18-month observation-based ethnographic study of 25 severely mentally ill individuals living in inner city Hartford, Connecticut.
The European American participants regularly sought care from mental health professionals and tended to express beliefs that mental health issues had a biological or medical cause. Contrastingly, African American and Latino participants were more likely to stress that symptoms of mental health issues did not have a biological or medical cause.
Although participants of all three ethnic groups recounted experiencing stigma owing to their mental health, stigma was a fundamental feature of the African Americans’ replies but was not highly noted by the European Americans. While European Americans tended to view psychiatric medications as ‘central and necessary’ aspects of treatment, interestingly, African American participants reported frustration over mental health professionals’ focus on medication.
Furthermore, Latino participants often viewed clinical diagnoses as ‘potentially very socially damaging’, preferring to describe their mental health conditions more generally as ‘nervios’, which was considered to hold less stigma.
Because African Americans and Latinos in the USA are significantly less likely to seek and receive mental health care compared to European Americans, investigating possible cultural contributions to this usage pattern may help efforts to increase uptake of mental health care services.

Your task

Think about your own cultural background.
  • How are mental health issues viewed by many people from your cultural background?
  • Does your experience in any way support the findings from the studies mentioned in this step?
Post your thoughts in the comments area.
Of course, not all people from a particular social background will have the same opinions, so you statement will be a general one.


Abdullah, T. and Brown, T.L. (2011) ‘Mental Illness Stigma and Ethnocultural Beliefs, Values, and Norms: An Integrative Review’ Clinical Psychology Review 31, 934-948

Carpenter-Song, E., Chu, E., Drake, R.E., Ritsema, M., and Smith, B. (2010) ‘Ethno-Cultural Variations in the Experience and Meaning of Mental Illness and Treatment: Implications for Access and Utilization’ Transcultural Psychiatry 47 (2), 224–251

OED Oxford English Dictionary (2018) ‘stigma, n.’ [online]. available from [7th December 2018]

Unite for Sight (2015) ‘Module 7: Cultural Perspectives on Mental Health’ [Online]. available from [16th November 2018]

Further reading

Phelan, J.C. (2005) ‘Geneticization of Deviant Behavior and Consequences for Stigma: The Case of Mental Illness’ Journal of Health and Social Behavior 46 (4), 307–322

© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
This article is from the free online

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