Australia as we know it has become a very diverse and multi-cultural country, and with this comes a mix of customs, certain ways people have become used to, as well as different perceptions around mental health. It’s no secret that past years have brought a stigma around mental illness, and this is even more prominent in many multi-cultural households. It’s especially an issue in some diverse racial and ethnic communities and it can be a major barrier to people from those cultures accessing mental health services. For example, in some Asian cultures, seeking professional help for mental illness may be counter to cultural values of strong family, emotional restraint and avoiding shame.

article blog multicultural family perceive mental health stigma

It’s estimated that one in five people will be affected with a mental health challenge at some point in their life. Mental health has never been spoken about as topic in many cultures. For some, if it isn’t physical sickness or something that could be seen with the naked eye, you are seen as “fine”.
Society and your culture can have a strong influence on the way mental health, and getting some support is perceived.

Barriers Preventing Seeking Support

Family members and friends play important roles in helping you cope with, manage and recover from illness – physical or mental. However, the stigma that still surrounds mental illness prevents many from seeking help and support, especially from those closest to them. Shame, embarrassment, lack of understanding and the fear of discrimination and rejection are just some of the barriers preventing diagnosis and effective treatment as well as family and community support. This is unfortunate because mental illness CAN be treated.

No matter what your background or ethnicity, your culture strongly influences beliefs about mental illness and shapes your attitudes towards those mentally ill.  

Some of these Cultural Factors Include:

  • Importance of social status – many cultures place a high value on social status and reputation. E.g. in many Asian countries, the concept of “Face” or public embarrassment, is extremely important. People will go to great lengths to save “Face”. A mental health issue may be viewed as a public embarrassment that could damage your reputation. As such, those suffering, and their families are less likely to see help.
  • Gender roles – most cultures discourage men from exhibiting physical or mental weakness. Extensive public health campaigns in many western countries have encouraged more men to seek medical help but many remain resistant. Especially those from more male-dominated cultures.
  • Attitudes towards mental health – not every culture accepts or trusts western medical practices and instead prefers to treat any illness with traditional approaches. Others do not consider mental illnesses to be medical issues. Instead, they believe they are caused by a lack of emotional harmony or evil spirits.
  • Age – younger people from all cultures, religions and ethnicities living in western countries are more likely to seek help. Older people, especially those who have emigrated from very different cultures, will be less likely to change their attitudes or behaviours. This generational clash of values and priorities can lead to increased stress, and the risk of anxiety or mood disorders for younger people. Many cultures require young adults to make decisions that will enable them to care for their parents rather than following their own path or prioritising their own needs.
  • Religious beliefs and spirituality – Buddhism and Taoism advocate for a spiritual understanding of disease and believe that mental concerns can be the result of bad deeds in previous lives. Non-Christians living in western countries are often hesitant to seek help from a professional as they feel there is a lack of understanding about, and respect for their religious beliefs.

There is one thing we can all do to eradicate stigma and support family members and loved ones struggling with mental illness – that is to better understand mental illness.

How to Better Understand & Express Mental Health to Loved Ones:

  • Talk openly about mental health, such as sharing it on social media.
  • Educate yourself and others – respond to misperceptions or negative comments by sharing facts and experiences.
  • Be conscious of language – remind people that words matter.
  • Encourage equality between physical and mental illness – draw comparisons to how they would treat someone with other illnesses such as cancer or diabetes.
  • Show compassion for those with mental illness.
  • Be honest about treatment – normalise mental health treatment just like other health care treatment.
  • Let the media know when they are using language presenting stories of mental illness in a stigmatising way.
  • Continue to live in a multicultural society by being more informed, aware, tolerant, and more open to change.

No matter what someone’s ethnicity or background, you can shatter these stereotypes and stigmas while celebrating diversity. This will only be successful by changing attitudes towards mental health and mental illness overall.

Written by Counsellor Tina Nguyen –