Escaping Stigma: Traveling for Mental Health Treatment

Despite evolving attitudes and treatment modalities, stigmas surrounding mental illness continues to persist around the world, and the silencing effects of stigma and lack of treatment options in many countries can be stifling and isolating. In such cases, sometimes the best way to find the help you need is to look abroad for treatment in order to begin your healing process in a safe, nurturing environment far removed from the stigmas of your home country.

Depression has been a part of Kerry Yang’s life for over 10 years. There were the meltdowns in college, self-injury that painted her body black and blue, the treatment attempts that went nowhere. She shares all of this, openly and candidly, with Matthew Brown, a Western journalist with the Associated Press. And yet within her own community, she is silent.

Yang lives in China. For her, there is no mental health awareness month, no local pop star sharing her own struggle, no mental health days at work. In fact, until recently there were virtually no services for the mentally ill at all barring institutionalization. “There’s a saying in China that if you display your emotions, you display weakness,” she tells Brown, and her story reveals just how deeply held that belief is.

Yang worked hard to keep her struggle hidden even in the midst of overwhelming distress, turning to self-injury to cope. When she finally did seek help, she found that her own language acted as a barrier to treatment. “I actually have trouble talking to a Chinese therapist because I’m uncomfortable speaking about this in my native tongue,” she says. And so she stopped going. It wasn’t until she decided to pursue her master’s degree in Australia that Yang finally felt comfortable participating in treatment, away from the silence that permeates Chinese society.

Of course, Yang is not the only Chinese person who feels this way—nor is such stigma a solely Chinese phenomenon.

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Stigma Persists Around the World


Deep-rooted stigmas exist in countries around the world that prevent people from seeking and accessing the care they need to heal. For example, in India, “many villagers still believe mental illness is caused by evil spirits angry that the sick person had killed a cow during a past life.” “There’s little awareness that it’s a real illness,” says Dr. Indira Sharma, president of the Indian Psychiatric Society. “Most people think it’s all a figment of your imagination. There’s still very deep stigma.”

In the Middle East, meanwhile, stigma prevents people from talking about depression and other mental illnesses even as people in the region struggle to cope with the traumatizing effects of war and conflict. “Keep going, walk it off, tough it out, are messages people are used to hearing in Arab culture where invisible illnesses are often trivialized,” writes Yasmine El-Geressi. “Not only is there a lack of awareness and ambivalence on the issue, but an overwhelming majority of people avoid discussing and dealing with the matter altogether.” While the roots and specific nature of stigma differ across cultures, all have the same impact: silencing those who need help.

The Silencing Effects of Stigma and Lack of Treatment


If you live in one of these areas or in another country with a culture of deep stigmatization, you may be reluctant to discuss your mental illness due to both real and perceived shaming and ostracization. When you have been raised to believe that mental health disorders are the result of personal weakness or, even worse, a sign that you are inhuman or possessed, silence can be a method of self-preservation.

This is particularly true in regions where the mentally ill are subjected to misguided attempts to cure, contain, or punish you. As a result, you are often left to suffer alone, your isolation pulling you further into distress. You may distance yourself from family and friends, weakening the social support networks so critical to emotional well-being. You may also internalize the damaging stigmas that keep you from seeking help, weaving destructive myths into your self-perception and ultimately augmenting your own suffering.

Unfortunately, even if you personally overcome stigma or accept its risks to seek treatment, the pickings are often slim. According to a 2012 study published in The Lancet, 173 million people in China suffer from a diagnosable mental illness, but only 15 million have received any form of treatment. While pervasive stigmas are partially to blame, so too is the lack of psychiatrists. There is currently only one psychiatrist for every 83,000 people living in China, compared to an average of 15.4 for every 100,000 people in developed countries. In India, a country of 1.2 billion people, there are only 4,000 psychiatrists, “compared with 50,000 in the US.”

In the Middle East, the countries with the highest proportion of psychiatrists still only have fewer than 0.5 psychiatrists per 100,000 people. What care does exist in these regions is often subpar; due to a historical lack of acknowledgment of mental illnesses as a public health issue, few healthcare services have been developed to treat them even as other countries have made great gains in treatment approaches and public awareness. Although a number of countries are now implementing policies that seek to expand mental health services and break through stigmatization, they remain far behind developed nations when it comes to both availability and quality of care.

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Looking Abroad for Treatment


If you are unable to find high-quality care in your home country, it may be time to consider traveling for mental health treatment. After all, when it comes to your health, it is natural and even necessary to want the very best and, for many, that means seeking care in a country with more highly trained clinicians and sophisticated treatment curriculums than they can find at home.

The United States is now a particularly attractive option, owing to its long history of psychiatric innovation and relative openness about mental health thanks to widespread public awareness campaigns and destigmatization efforts. Residential mental health treatment programs in the US can offer a kind and quality of care rarely replicated in other countries along with a private, welcoming environment in which you can feel comfortable and safe. Here, you do not have to suffer in silence, but can speak openly about your experience with the knowledge that you will be met with support, understanding, and love.

When choosing a residential mental health treatment program in the U.S., however, it is important to seek out a program that has experience working with a multicultural population. While mental illness cuts across culture and geography, the specific experiences and challenges you face can be deeply impacted by environment. So too can your goals, your level of comfort engaging in various forms of treatment, and your ability to get the most out of particular therapeutic modalities.

By seeking care from clinicians who have experience working with people from a variety of backgrounds, you can ensure that your clinical team understands and acknowledges your unique situation. Your treatment plan should be tailored to your needs, preferences, strengths, and communication style, and special efforts should be made to create culturally relevant care that is meaningful for you.

The cultural shifts happening around the world with regard to mental health are promising—but if you cannot find adequate treatment close to home yet, traveling to find the care you need to regain stability is your best option. With the support of compassionate clinicians and supportive peers, you can engage your ability to heal and recapture your ability to experience stability, psychological harmony, and joy.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance abuse and eating disorders. Contact us to learn more about our world-class program and how can help you or your loved one start the journey toward healing.

Lead Image Source: Unsplash user Phùng Hải