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Cultural and Social Determinants of Mental Health

The recognition of the profound influence our surroundings have on mental health has emerged as a pivotal aspect in the assessment and treatment of mental health issues. Recently, there has been a growing understanding that a holistic view of a patient’s life, encompassing both cultural and social elements, is crucial in providing effective care.

This comprehensive approach acknowledges that various cultural and social factors significantly influence mental health and overall well-being. As a result, professionals in the healthcare sector are now better equipped to address and manage a wide array of mental health conditions.

The challenges can seem overwhelming at first glance. Psychology professionals working in various capacities may not have a robust background in addressing mental health concerns related to cultural and social determinants. That’s where offerings like Avila University’s online Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in Psychology with a concentration in Mental Health program serve an important purpose.

There is an intimate connection between one’s cultural background or social circumstances (or both) and mental health. Two main examples include the impact of cultural background and mental health and social determinants of health.

Impact of Cultural Background on Mental Health

Culture profoundly influences how mental health is perceived and addressed. Cultural stigmas surrounding mental health vary widely. Some cultures view mental health challenges as a sign of weakness or do not recognize them as a legitimate healthcare problem. This can lead to reluctance to discuss symptoms and seek help.

Furthermore, racial and ethnic minorities often face barriers in accessing mental health care due to mistrust stemming from historical discrimination, clinical stereotyping by healthcare providers, language barriers and financial constraints. For instance, studies have shown that African Americans seek mental health treatment at a lower rate (25%) compared to their white counterparts (40%), largely due to these systemic issues.

4 Cultural Factors That Affect Mental Health

In addition to the above factors, there are key cultural contributors to a person’s mental health. The following represent four of the most common:

1. Family Background

Research indicates a higher likelihood of mental health challenges in individuals from families with a history of such issues. This is attributed not only to genetic predispositions but also to the family environment’s role in early development. Family interactions are foundational in developing social and emotional skills. Exposure to family members with mental health struggles can impede the ability to effectively manage emotions or handle stress, potentially leading to mental health issues in the future.

2. Religion

Religion can be a double-edged sword in terms of mental health. For some, it offers comfort, a sense of community and a framework to make sense of the world. For others, it can be a source of stress or conflict. Those in minority religions might feel isolated or discriminated against. People may struggle with conflicting religious beliefs and mental health perceptions, especially when religious teachings stigmatize mental illness — potentially leading to shame and reluctance to seek help.

3. Social Norms

Cultural expectations significantly influence mental health. In collectivist cultures, prioritizing community or family needs over individual needs can lead to neglect of personal mental health, resulting in resentment or burnout. Conversely, in individualistic societies, the pressure to be self-reliant can cause stress in those who cannot meet these standards.

4. Traditions

Cultural traditions can both positively and negatively affect mental health. Some traditions, like rigid gender roles or restrictive marriage practices, may contribute to mental distress — such as domestic violence or feelings of isolation. However, other practices, particularly those related to mourning and grief, can provide a supportive framework for healthy emotional processing.

In each of these areas, it’s clear that the cultural and social context in which an individual exists plays a critical role in shaping their mental health and well-being.

Social Determinants and Mental Health

The social environment plays a crucial role in shaping mental health. Factors like poverty, violence, inequality, environmental deprivation and natural or manufactured disasters significantly increase the risk of mental health conditions.

For example, large-scale and often unforeseen disasters profoundly disrupt the regular flow of life. They can lead to loss of life, trauma and extensive property damage that often overwhelms the affected communities’ capacity to cope. On average, the world witnesses at least one disaster daily, and the frequency and severity of these events remain high, exacerbated by climate change and increasing population densities.

Another example is the physical environment in which a person lives. Those who live in urban areas often feel like they exist in a “concrete jungle.” The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers four strategies to help improve urban community members’ mental wellness, specific to the types of spaces urban areas lack:

  1. Green: Areas with natural elements like parks and gardens
  2. Active: Zones that encourage physical activities and exercise
  3. Social: Places designed to facilitate social interactions among people
  4. Safe: Secure environments without the threats of crime and traffic

These spaces contribute to psychological well-being by offering a sense of security and fostering a positive mental health environment. Urban planning is crucial, especially in directing these improvements toward impoverished communities where they are most needed.

Importance of Trauma-Informed and Culturally Sensitive Care

As mentioned, trauma is a significant contributor to mental health concerns. Trauma risks can manifest at any life stage, with those occurring during early childhood being particularly detrimental. These instances are known as “adverse childhood experiences or simply ACE.

A trauma-informed approach to mental health care takes into consideration the individual’s experiences and environment. This approach is essential in understanding a patient’s mental health condition, as it considers historical and current environmental factors. Clinicians are encouraged to collect and integrate data on various aspects including physical and behavioral symptoms, broad social determinants of health, environmental factors and ACEs to develop a comprehensive understanding of the patient’s mental health.

Similarly, providing culturally sensitive care involves understanding and respecting the diverse cultural backgrounds of patients. This includes being aware of the unique challenges faced by minority groups, such as higher rates of chronic physical illness, which can contribute to mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Healthcare providers must recognize and address these challenges to offer effective and empathetic care.

Solidifying Mental Health Expertise With a B.A. Degree

The above challenges can seem overwhelming at first glance. Professionals working in various capacities may not have a robust background in addressing mental health concerns related to cultural and social determinants. That’s where offerings like Avila’s online B.A. in Psychology with a concentration in Mental Health program serve an important purpose.

Specifically, the Field Experience in Psychology course is tailored to equip students with essential skills and knowledge for success in a variety of professional settings. The course incorporates field placements with seminars to extend students into the real-world application of the program’s coursework.

A significant focus is applying psychological principles in a work setting with particular attention to employing a range of techniques for processing information and drawing conclusions. This comprehensive approach aims to enhance students’ proficiency in both theoretical and practical aspects of the mental health field.

Together, We Can Make a Difference

Understanding the cultural and social determinants of mental health is crucial for healthcare professionals. This knowledge enables a path to provide more effective, empathetic and culturally sensitive care — ultimately leading to better mental health outcomes.

Integrating these factors into practices and policies is essential in addressing the complex needs of individuals and promoting mental health equity. Graduates of an advanced degree like that at Avila University are prepared to anticipate and tackle mental health challenges head on.

Learn more about Avila University’s online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology with a concentration in Mental Health program.

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