Overcoming cultural taboos pertaining to mental health support
Written by: Dr. Yamam Abuzinadah, PhD, MSC, BA, MACA.
As a mental health educator, counsellor, consultant, and researcher, I have spent the last 18 years of my life learning, researching, and teaching about mental health and wellness within culturally and linguistically diverse communities (CALD) as well as with Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC). There is so much to unpack about the CALD communities when it comes to mental, emotional, and or psychological health.
I did my PhD research in this field and many of the findings highlighted cultural factors like shame and stigma as the most common barrier to getting mental health support in CALD communities. Shame and stigma create cultural taboos where people in the community avoid talking about, recognizing, or acknowledging mental health issues; scholars have identified this as “Mental Health Literacy.” Unfortunately, this leads to the fear of accessing the emotional and mental health support needed. Many of the success stories I hear from my clients start with finding the courage to seek help. Their stories always make my day. Seeking help is the very first step to overcoming cultural taboos and getting professional help when life feels a bit heavy.
Understanding the stigma associated with seeking mental health support
The topic of help-seeking behaviours is connected to themes such as stigma, culture, traditions, customs, family, trauma, religious beliefs, education, and socioeconomic status. In various studies, shame and stigma appear to be an overwhelming obstacle to accessing mental health services, due to the strong cultural taboos on disclosing any personal or family issues to outsiders. Many individuals describe that stigma as a mark of disgrace that sets them, as a person, apart from others. They feel that they are “labelled” by their illness, they are no longer seen as an individual, but as part of a stereotyped group. Negative attitudes and beliefs towards such groups creates prejudice and leads to negative outcomes that many do not have the emotional capacity to deal with.
Globally, stigma is well-known as a key barrier to dealing with mental health challenges. The stigma and associated discrimination towards persons suffering from mental and behavioural disorders, makes people, especially in the CALD community afraid to be forthcoming about their mental health issues. They fear a lack of acceptance and understanding of their mental health and emotional struggles. Sometimes, it may reach a point where individuals might resort to isolating themselves from their community as they do not want anyone to hear that they have a mental health issue. Isolation can lead to loneliness and as many studies have proven, loneliness negatively impacts one’s mental health issues even more.
Decoding the different types of stigma
Generally speaking, there are two types of stigma: self‐stigma and public stigma.
Self-stigma: This is a stigmatizing attitude that a person holds toward themselves if they have a mental health issue. It is a sense of shame and a belief that they should not be weak and should be able to “snap out of it.” Sometimes, newcomers are not able to afford the cost of treatment due to financial constraints. This adds an extra layer of burden if they needed to seek financial support from their family due to mental health struggles. For some, this materializes as self-initiated social distancing (unrelated to the pandemic), which is even more isolating. Others distance themselves from their friends who fail to understand their condition or suffering or judge them for it.
Public stigma: This is how the community reacts to people with mental health issues. Some people prefer to keep their mental health challenges and diagnosis a secret because they are ashamed of public stigma and they do not want to be seen as weak or ill.
Adapting to a culture that supports mental health
Mental health services may be perceived as stigmatizing, particularly for people from the CALD community. While no country has a perfect record for mental health, Canada does have a culture of openly talking about mental health issues and encouraging those who need support to ask for and receive the help they need. In Canada, there are culturally sensitive services, albeit limited, that provide mental health support considering culture and language.
Overcoming the cultural taboo of seeking mental health support
So how can we as a community overcome this cultural taboo associated with mental health? People like to be in control, they like to be strong and unaffected by adversity. This is typically driven by a fear of the stigma that was planted as a seed through their upbringing in CALD/BIPOC communities.
Acceptance is the first step
It is crucial to accept that mental health problems are widespread. It affects more than 20 per cent of people. According to the World Health Organization, mental health issues like depression – which affects more than 264 million people of all ages around the world. This acceptance paves the path for healing and recovery.
Another approach that many CALD people find helpful is leaning on a spiritual outlook. There are Sheikhs, priests, shamans or other religious and spiritual leaders, who offer religious/spiritual healing. More importantly, in Canada, they are trained in basic mental health awareness and are equipped to recognize symptoms and signs which is great.
A few tips to help you overcome cultural taboos when dealing with mental health issues
- Make your wellness and self-care a priority. It is more important than community judgment. Seeking help is confidential and a competent counsellor who is professionally trained will help you through all your concerns about mental health support while protecting your confidentiality.
- Seek a bicultural and/or bilingual mental health expert who is well-aware of your background, religion, spirituality, culture, and community.
- Counselling works! So, if you do not feel heard through counselling, express this to your counsellor or switch to another counsellor. Do not waste your time and money, and do not prolong your suffering.
- Do not isolate yourself. As much as it feels appealing, you can ease your emotional struggles and burdens if the right people carry the load with you. So, talk to close and empathic friends and family members.
- Educate yourself through trustworthy sources of information. Make sure you are reading from a reliable outlet or an official government website.
- Join a support group. Even if you are not ready to share your struggles, just knowing that you are not alone helps.
- Talk openly about mental health and advocate for yourself. Speak out against stigma and maybe, consider expressing your opinions with small groups as a start.
At PsyMood, we provide endless combinations of mental health approaches, languages and cultures. Start your wellness journey by matching with one of our specialists!