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The Role of Cultural-Competency in Holistic Mental Healthcare

By Niku Sedarat


Mental health, a fundamental pillar of our overall well-being, often dwells in the shadows of societal stigma. However, according to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, our journey toward self-actualization hinges on psychological well-being—embracing a sense of community, social support, love, and self-esteem. Evidently, mental health is a foundational cornerstone of our health, happiness, and potential. But, even more so, it serves as a universal thread that ties together our shared humanity. It's a universal experience that varies as much as the individuals it connects. Therefore, it is imperative for mental health care to embrace this diversity, particularly in terms of cultural competence.

While we all share a universal experience of mental health, human beings exhibit incredible diversity in various sociocultural aspects. Thus, the cultural lens through which we perceive and undergo mental health must be considered in the care we receive. Various cultural groups perceive and experience mental health uniquely. For example, research from the Netherlands has shown that Afghan refugees often do not connect physical and mental health, potentially leading to a prioritization of physical health at the expense of their mental well-being.

The expression and experience of mental health symptoms can also differ significantly based on sociocultural identities. In India, individuals seeking support from healthcare systems often describe their mental health challenges using somatic symptoms, such as shortness of breath or physical pain, while patients in the United States tend to present symptoms in cognitive terms, like an inability to focus or impaired decision-making. This discrepancy underscores the profound influence of culture on mental health experiences.

Cultural differences are also evident in how individuals cope with mental illness and challenges. Positive relationships with cultural activities can contribute to improved mental health and the prevention of mental illness. Individuals with higher levels of happiness tend to engage more in social activities, highlighting the influence of culture on mood. Conversely, low levels of happiness are common in many mental illnesses, emphasizing the interconnectedness of culture and psychopathology.

Beyond the effects of culture, social experiences of racism and discrimination significantly shape how different cultural and social groups experience mental health. Racism extends beyond negative attitudes, leading to social alienation and various adverse effects on an individual's mental health. Therefore, there is a wide range of cultural variations in the types of stressors people experience and the ways they assess and respond to those stressors. For example, Muslim-identifying women commonly face individual and institutionalized prejudice, or Islamophobia, which can significantly impact their mental health.

It is evident that culture plays a pivotal role in three distinct aspects: the stressors individuals encounter, their coping mechanisms, and how they articulate their mental health challenges. Mental health professionals must take cultural variance into account when assessing psychopathology, establishing as a "shared narrative" between clients and clinicians to understand how culture influences an individual's mental health experience. This shared narrative serves as a foundation for an initial assessment and ongoing treatment that is person-centered and culturally relevant.

However, cultural competence in mental health care should extend beyond adapting treatments to a client's cultural beliefs. It should also consider the broader social context in which culture is embedded, recognizing it as both a part of the social world and an individual's experience. Mental health professionals must also acknowledge the dynamic interplay of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors in a person's mental health, understanding that these components are interconnected elements shaping an individual's holistic experience that must also be accounted for in the care that they receive.



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