Rising Above: Ending Mental Illness Stigma in Minority Communities

In a 2005 issue of Visions Journal, a Southeast Asian woman shared her experience of losing her son to suicide after a devastating struggle with depression she could not see or accept; in her culture, depression was something crazy people got, not an illness that could affect her sweet son.[1. http://www.heretohelp.bc.ca/visions/suicide-vol2/suicide-and-shame-in-a-southeast-asian-community] Blind to the symptoms of his illness, she did not intervene, and his pain eventually became too great to bear. After his death, she was reluctant to invite people from her community to the funeral, worried that they would discover he had died by suicide. Her fears turned out to be founded: word of both the funeral and the cause of death got out, and even in her deepest moments of grief she heard whispers condemning his actions–how could he do this to his parents? How could he be so selfish? How could he commit this sin, knowing God would not forgive him?

Our relationships with ourselves and our sense of psychological harmony are deeply tied to our social experiences. As intensely social beings, our attitudes are informed by powerful cultural forces that impact both our emotions and behaviors, as we naturally search for belonging and attempt to make sense of the world around us. Sometimes this leads to profound personal fortification, validation, and the ability to draw strength from a community of support. However, cultural attitudes may also cause serious damage, alienation, and shame, when your experience does not align with the prevailing narrative within a culture of how a person should be. In the case of mental illness, sociocultural stigma can be deeply harmful and create both internal and external obstacles to recovery.

The Consequences of Stigma

Research consistently shows that racial and ethnic minority groups are less likely to receive timely, high-quality psychiatric care and accurate diagnosis.[2. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/08/27/us/disparities-seen-in-mental-care-for-minorities.html] This is due in part to economic inequality, disparities in insurance coverage, and language barriers that interfere with practical access to professional mental health services. However, a more complex and insidious cause is the high level of stigmatization within some minority communities that may prevent you from recognizing your psychological distress as a legitimate medical condition and keep you from seeking treatment. In some cultures, mental health disorders are a taboo topic that brings great embarrassment to families, isolating those who suffer from psychiatric disturbances, and creating social incentives for denial. In the absence of accurate information, acceptance, and care, the illness is left to run rampant, often with devastating consequences.

Ending Stigmatization

Recognizing the need for increased awareness about mental health disorders in minority communities, the US House of Representatives declared July to be National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, spurring dialogue and pushing for improved understanding and services.[3. http://www.nami.org/nmmham] In order to ensure that people with mental health disorders receive the care they need to rebuild their lives and regain emotional wellness, it is vital that we break through cultural stigmas and create nurturing communities in which you can process your illness and seek treatment without fear or shame. Psychological disorders are not the result of poor character, lack of willpower, or personal failures, but serious medical conditions that require both professional and social support to ensure positive outcomes. Education is a central component to the work of destigmatization; by demystifying mental illness and learning to recognize the symptoms, you can better understand your experience and be alert to the signs that you need help. When you are ready, treatment programs such as Bridges to Recovery work to provide the highest standard of care with a nuanced multicultural awareness that addresses the unique concerns of people from racial and ethnic minority groups, allowing you to quickly move forward to lead a healthier, richer life.

 

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for mental health disorders using modern, innovative therapies. Contact us with any questions or to learn more about how our residential treatment program can help you or your loved one.