Help is Here: Mental illness cuts across all cultural divides, communities

Talking about mental health is often regarded as a difficult conversation, whether it’s while we’re gathered around the family dinner table or visiting with our friends, colleagues or community members. Our society often views mental health illness as threatening and uncomfortable. As a direct consequence of our attitudes, people who experience mental health challenges may feel shame and hopelessness, a lack of confidence or low self-esteem. They may decide to withdraw from social activities or even to end their lives. Mental illness is a taboo topic that carries with it a powerful social stigma, a stigma that is often amplified within our immigrant communities.

In an increasingly racially, culturally and economically diverse Vermont, it is important to recognize that mental health issues may be even more misunderstood and stigmatized among those who have recently arrived in our state from other cultures. Often, minority ethnic communities do not seek help for mental health issues. They may rely on traditional practices that may be ineffective or have limitations. For health professionals, it is helpful to have a respectful conversation with families, learn about their cultural norms, listen without judgement, create a holistic treatment plan and suggest using western medicine if their traditional methods do not have the expected healing power. Most often, family-oriented care produces better results than imposed solutions. At the end of the day, families know their loved ones’ story better than anyone; they should be respected equally as the best teachers.

Sometimes, those within our community who have yet to gain a strong command of the English language and of American culture do not have access to or understand information that can help them identify and acknowledge that they are struggling. They may not be aware of the resources available to assist them. Human service professionals can provide compassionate assistance and help connect them to appropriate services, ensuring that they are happy, healthy, involved members of our community. This may require that physicians, clinicians and medical staff take time to understand and become familiar with stigmas attached to mental health conditions within different communities.

In addition, it is helpful to have information about mental health readily available in the main languages of the individuals receiving help. Translating basic information about programs, services, and medical procedures is a beneficial first step. Service providers may also consider using cultural brokers – someone from the client’s culture who is able to represent their desires and advocate on their behalf. Other options may include hiring phone and video certified interpreters to ensure the quality of the interpretation service. To maintain the privacy, dignity and respect of clients, patients or students, it is best that an objective third-party provide translation as delicate, private information may need to be shared between the non-English speaker and the human service professionals.

Within our schools, teachers, guidance counselors, and social workers are often the first to receive cues from students about challenges in their lives. They can follow up with conversations with students and their families and refer them to the appropriate services.

Just as cancer was stigmatized in the 1960s, people who live with mental illness today tend to keep the condition to themselves, yet, no one should feel ashamed to disclose their mental health status. The reality is that nobody is exempt, as mental illness cuts across all cultural divides. The whole of our society is affected and impacted by it.

Howard Center improves the wellbeing of our community by helping people with mental health, substance use and developmental services. Help is here. www.howardcenter.org.

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