Immigration and illness: The cultural barriers that block mental health treatment
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07-02-15 Category: Mental Health, Therapy


The United States is often compared to a melting pot where inhabitants of many other countries aim to call America home. Each new entry into America contributes something unique to this conjoined collective of diversity, just as each state sets a special scene for communities to thrive in. California is no exception of this trend; in fact, it is the best example. According to the latest research conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, California actually has the largest foreign-born population of any other state with an estimated 27 percent in 2011.

Of these immigrating individuals, most travel to the Golden State from two primary places of origin. The overall bulk of Californian immigrants were born in Latin America, while another large proportion comes from Asia. However, the tables have turned in recent years. Between 2007 and 2011, a surging 53 percent of arrivals originated from Asia and only 31 percent came from Latin America.

Together, these two demographics make up the majority of California’s minorities. Unfortunately, both groups also struggle to fit completely within the mold of American life. Many different factors contribute to this difficult process of assimilation and resulting culture shock, but the concept of mental health has become a recurring theme.

For Latino populations, there is a well-documented history of specific cases and general data that expose a barrier between this demographic and mental health treatment. While the stigma of having mental illness or seeking mental health treatment is a very real element of various cultures, studies show that the Latino community has particular hurdles to overcome in this regard. Specifically, long-term research has discovered that those who settle into the United States suffer from an increased rate of mental illness and substance abuse. Depression is a notably pervasive disorder, afflicting 46 percent of Latino women. Despite these findings, less than one in 11 Latinos with mental disorders seek out mental health care specialists and less than one in five contact their general health care provider.

William Vega, Ph.D., professor at the University of Southern California and a leader of Latino-oriented mental health research, claims that a mixture of cultural and socioeconomic influences is responsible for a lack of psychological awareness and care. Cornerstone values of Latino culture include religion and family. Members of the community often look to both for guidance and relief in relation to mental afflictions. In addition, many also believe in self-reliance, which naturally conflicts with seeking help and support.

Without more open communication about how these problems are expressed or treated, many Latinos remain unfamiliar with how a significant percentage of their community is afflicted. In a recent study, Vega questioned 200 depressed and low-income Latinos in Los Angeles about their opinions. From this sample, more than half reported that depressed people were not trustworthy and that they would not interact with a person suffering from depression. The same half of participants was less likely to take medication and maintain consistent contact with their physicians as well.

Asian Americans and immigrants share similar hurdles in their relationship with mental health care providers. In a 2007 study, Asian Americans demonstrated half the rate of mental health–related service use in comparison to the general population. Similar restraints related to culture exist, as some studies cite differences in language as a reason why instructions and trust cannot be communicated between English-speaking doctors and foreign-speaking patients.

Other developed countries showed comparable findings. In Canada, Asian immigrants must integrate themselves into a completely new society and many accomplish this without parental guidance or other community resources. When given the opportunity to share thoughts about their respective experiences, interviewees spoke at length about the social isolation they experienced as a result of language and cultural barriers. In short, many invisible walls prevented them from making any meaningful relationships. According to a recent report interviewing Asian youth, 12 percent of participants expressed that they had seriously considered suicide over a 12-month period, while 19 percent reported similarly destructive thoughts like they would be better off dead.

“I feel kind of lost. I don’t want to hang out with anyone. I just avoid people. And I’d thought about committing suicide at one point,” said 20-year-old Taiwanese immigrant Ayato Inamori.

In 2006, research was published that revealed important findings about focusing mental health interventions on specific cultural groups. Studies have shown that targeting particular cultural groups were four times more effective than more general interventions including individuals of a variety of different backgrounds. As methods continue to innovate and develop, professionals in the field will gain the education necessary to access these isolated communities and spread effective care to entirely new populations.

Sovereign Health Group crafts treatment plans around the exact needs of the client. Through this comprehensive and inclusive model of treatment, Sovereign has improved the lives of at-risk and underserved populations. If you or a loved one needs help dealing with a mental health problem or addiction, contact our 24/7 admissions helpline to learn more about how we can help. Chat online or call (866) 819-0427.

Written by Lee Yates, Sovereign Health Group writer

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