A phenomenon not discussed often enough within the mental health world is the association between mental health and cultural identity. Culture is defined as an assortment of shared traits among a group of people. These traits include language, religion, art, literature, and music style, but also extend to belief systems, attitudes, values, and social mannerisms. Culture is not necessarily the same throughout a region.
For example, the Caribbean is much too vast to have one common culture. Individual countries, however, are much more defined. Jamaica is known for reggae, but also self-determination and personal autonomy. Haitian citizens love lots of rice and beans, but also have very traditional gender roles. Culture can and does change over time, giving way to subgroups and subcultures within the larger group, but the foundation remains the same.
One develops cultural identity by belonging to the group with which it shares common characteristics and then learning the group’s ways of acting and being in the world. It is important to recognize the role of cultural identity in relation to good mental health.
Cultural identity could also be called collective identity because it evolves through being part of a group. Research shows that those who embrace their cultural identity have better psychological health and overall well-being.
This is because an understanding of group membership actually leads to a clearer sense of personal identity. It is through the perception of belonging that individuals are able to develop a sense of self which stems from some of the following:
• cultural belief systems,
• historical events,
• behavioral norms, and
• value systems shared by the entire group
In short, the key to understanding oneself is to first understand one’s culture.
Feeling a sense of belonging is essential to having good mental health. Having a strong cultural identity can provide exactly that. Humans were created for community, not for solitude. Many mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety have been strongly associated with feeling a lack of belonging. On the other hand, being a part of a group has been shown to be successful in reducing stress and lessening the physical and mental impacts of hardships.
When someone knows they are supported and not alone, life tends to get easier. Support from others within the community is important, especially when someone is in the process of recovering from a mental disorder. Some cultural groups encourage self-dependence or reliance on spirituality for healing. More often than not this is an inadvertent, unspoken idea within that culture. African American groups specifically are more likely to deal with problems on their own rather than seek help. When mental illness is left untreated, it can negatively affect one’s quality of life and result in more health issues consequently.
One major effect culture has on an individual is his or her perception of mental health. Individuals can be affected in their choice to pursue professional help, in the types of treatment they are open to, and to what extent they attach a stigma to their mental state. Within the
Caribbean region, both stigma and discrimination are shown to reduce the access citizens have to mental health services. It is important to recognize that no matter what someone’s cultural identity is, seeking help is always a positive step and should be pursued.
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