What about culture and mental health?

I once picked up three flowers while out shopping with a friend, who then inquired as to why I chose three flowers. I told her there was no reason; I just felt like three different colored flowers. She explained that in her culture, “three flowers implies someone has died, or perhaps an odd number of flowers means bad luck,” and she went on to explain the meanings of the various colors I chose. I was baffled and inquired about the reasons behind it. This moment intrigued me so much that I thought about it for the following few days—how diverse we are all, how we all have different perspectives on the world and each with our own set of reasons.

Culture is a collective identity shaped by social patterns, norms, rituals, beliefs, values, laws, knowledge, the arts, and behaviors. By the time we reach adulthood, our culture has mostly become unconscious. Culture has an impact on how we communicate with others, as well as how we interpret what they are saying. We also have a delusional belief that everyone perceives things the same way we do. Furthermore, we tend believe that our culture is superior to that of others, or that it is the correct way to conduct things. I’m looking at the core, or possibly the roots. In order to understand the origins, meanings, and effects of mental illness, I’m looking at it from a sociocultural perspective. What does mental health mean in different cultures?

What does mental health mean in different cultures?

Tradition and religion are highly valued in Hispanic Latino communities. There are strong gender roles and gender-based coping styles, for example, severe psychiatric symptoms may be seen as a sign of weakness for men, while women may feel pressured to cope with severe symptoms within the family rather than seek outside therapy. Machismo, a traditional Latino ethic, fosters the repression of emotion and the projection of strength and self-reliance, as well as the acceptance of the position of family provider and protector. Mariansimo, on the other hand, is a traditional Latina value that urges women to be accomondating, submissive, and family-centered. Mariansimo also encourages women to take on the family’s suffering with dignity. Mental illness is seen as a reflection of shame and embarrassment in the family, thus if someone is an outlier, they are explicitly told to remain hidden from the public eye. Since family matters are not disclosed to the outside world, the family tends to keep mentally unstable relatives concealed from the community.

Mental illness is considered a trivial, transient condition; people with mental disorders are often told to “simply get over it” or “slip out of it,” and are also seen as attention seekers. They’ve been labeled as insane. Latinos (particularly females and less acculturated Latinos) are also more inclined to somaticize mental health problems, according to research. Hispanics/Latinos are primarily Catholic. Mental illness is regarded as a misfortune. In the context of religious affiliation– It is linked to sin in the sense that those who are mentally ill believe it is due to a lack of religious faith. As a result, if the individual had more faith and did believe, they would not be sick. Alternatively, if they corrected their wicked ways, the illness would be lifted from them.[1]

Studies have been conducted on mental health and Asian culture. Amongst the participants, were Chinese, Indians, and Filipinos. A significant proportion of participants linked mental illness to a “loss of purpose in life.” Some participants compared mental illnesses to insanity; one participant said that having a mentally sick person in the family was like having a mad person at home. The participant went on to remark that it’s best to avoid such people because there’s no way to get rid of them. They are in a state at which this person is suffering is beyond help. In some Asian cultures, some people view mental illness as somatic illness [2]

Mental illness is associated with superstitious or supernatural origins in Filipino culture, such as God’s will, witchcraft, and sorcery, which runs counter to the biopsychosocial model utilized by mental health experts. Filipinos prefer to seek aid from traditional folk healers who use religious rites in their healing process rather than seek professional help in this cultural environment. Participants in one study corroborated this, saying that “psychiatrists are not a means to deal with emotional disorders.” They also perceive mental illness as a transient affliction brought on by the cold or as a character flaw that must be conquered on an individual basis. The notion that mental illness is a test of faith and perseverance is related to the high spirituality and religious affinities.[3]

“In some cases it is believed that the loss of one’s soul can further weaken one’s body and lead to a state of confusion”

Haque A [4]

In other cultures for instance the Vietnamese, mental illness is attributed to fate or punishment from the dead caused by malevolence and misfortune placed on an individual for misdeeds that angered his/her ancestors. Other widely held indigenous ideas on mental illness are based on the idea of harmony and balance among the universe’s material and non-material entities. Mental disorders are also defined as a discord in the cosmic energies that surround an individual’s physical body and surroundings, as well as an imbalance in one’s interpersonal relationships. Furthermore, it is believed that a balanced flow of energy maintains one’s body balance, and that stagnation in the flow of energy and motion might affect one’s mental and physical health.[5]

In west African cultures, they perceive mental disorders as a taboo. They believe that someone is cursed or possessed by evil spirits and for that reason, your whole family is doomed or perhaps the person suffering from the mental disorder is believed to have brought bad omen into the family. Most Africans have a natural Affinity towards the supernatural. [6] In South Sudan, they believe that a person can become mentally ill from stealing something therefore it is attributed to spiritual revenge- spirits from the mountain, the waters or from the thick forests. In some cases, when a family buys a goat or cow, the animal may be possessed by a spirit that would most likely cause illness to someone in the family; as a result, the family must slaughter an animal to show respect to the spirit.[7]

In Uganda, “Locally people say Mulalu, which literally means you’re mad, you’re useless” says Jimmy Odoki, who also has bipolar disorder. “Where I come from people say ‘that one he’s a walking dead‘.” according to the BBC. 

There is a difference between being ignorant about something i.e. (you have never heard that perspective before) and being aware but still choosing otherwise from that point of view of the world. Some of these cultures, seem to choose otherwise. Nonetheless, others seem to lack awareness and resources for mental health. How does your culture apprehend mental health?

Funny story– When I use chapsticks with my friends during hot pot, I always forget and place them straight up in the dish, but the good thing is that they constantly remind me, so I adapt. When I asked why I shouldn’t place the chapstick as I did, one of them said it was a sign of disrespect in Asian culture. I mean, it clearly doesn’t mean anything to me, but it certainly does in another culture—I had so many irritating inquiries that followed mostly for insight, but I recognized that fact. Culture is awe-inspiring.


[1] Etd.ohiolink.edu. https://etd.ohiolink.edu/apexprod/rws_etd/send_file/send?accession=toledo1449868982&disposition=inline.

[2] Web.unbc.ca. https://web.unbc.ca/~lih/Mental%20Health.PDF.

[3] Martinez, Andrea B., et al. “Filipino Help-Seeking for Mental Health Problems and Associated Barriers and Facilitators: A Systematic Review.” Social Psychiatry & Psychiatric Epidemiology, vol. 55, no. 11, Nov. 2020, pp. 1397–1413. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/s00127-020-01937-2.

[4] Haque, A. 2008. Culture-bound syndromes and healing practices in Malaysia. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 11: 685–696

[5] Nguyen, HannahThuy, et al. “Religious Leaders’ Assessment and Attribution of the Causes of Mental Illness: An in-Depth Exploration of Vietnamese American Buddhist Leaders.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture, vol. 15, no. 5, June 2012, pp. 511–527. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/13674676.2011.594037.

[6] Ventevogel, Peter, et al. “Madness or Sadness? Local Concepts of Mental Illness in Four Conflict-Affected African Communities.” Conflict and Health, BioMed Central, 18 Feb. 2013, https://conflictandhealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1752-1505-7-3.

[7] Culture, Chic African. “Mental Illness in Africa Taboos.” African Cultures Express, Encourage, and Communicate Energy, Blogger, 20 Mar. 2021, https://www.theafricangourmet.com/2018/12/epidemic-of-mental-illness-in-africa.html.

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