Mental illness is a subject that is little understood, both by the global population at large and even by the psychiatrists and psychologists who study it on a daily basis. In the United States, we have a large and culturally diverse population, but these differences are not always positive, especially when it comes to mental health awareness.
According to a study conducted by Carpenter Song et. al (2010), which followed a group of 25 mentally ill patients of varying cultural backgrounds, the results highlighted this issue. For example, of the selected group, European Americans were more likely to seek help and trust prescribed medication, seeing it as a “central and necessary” part of their treatment, while the African American and Latino participants were more likely to distrust medication and sought out more “non-biomedical” explanations for their mental illnesses. In another study done by Bailey et. al (2011) on African American subjects, results showed that a significant amount of the African American reported negative attitudes toward mental health professionals for a variety of cultural and personal reasons. Regardless of race, however, all cultures experience some kind of stigma because of their mental illness. Unfortunately, this is true for Asian and Indian Americans as well, and stigma against mental illness is stronger in these cultures because of their emphasis on family reputation. From the Chinese perspective, anything that causes one to lose control or act shamefully leads to one being ostracized in their communities and even within their own families.
Different cultural backgrounds also affect the reasons behind stigmas. For example, in a 2003 study, European and Chinese Americans were shown videos about individuals with schizophrenia or major depression. They were then told that the illness was “genetic,” “partially genetic,” or “not genetic.” They were then asked how they would feel if one of their children dated or reproduced with that person. When told that the illness was genetic, the Chinese group reported a reduced unwillingness to allow their children to date and reproduce with them, but the same measure made European Americans more unwilling. This result shows that stigma can be affected in different ways by different cultures, and one’s perception and understanding (or misunderstanding) of mental illness is the real heart of the problem.
However, no matter who you are or what your background is, almost everyone with a mental illness is discriminated against or experiences some kind of stigma, and that is why NAMI and other similar organizations are so important. They work to root out these stigmas, educate people on the facts concerning mental illness, and advocate for legal changes that will make the world a better place for those who feel the pain of being misunderstood and abused by their communities that do not understand what they are going through or why. Help break the stigma, whether it’s here in the United States, or around the world.