What Is Cultural Psychiatry?

C.J. Wells

Cultural psychiatry is the study and treatment of mental illness in individuals and that also takes into consideration broader implications of race, ethnicity, religion and cultural background. This approach to contextual psychiatry has grown significantly as modern societies have become more diverse. Cultural psychiatry is an expansive discipline that utilizes the research of social and behavioral scientists, medical and cultural anthropologists and worldwide mental health workers in determining the best course of clinical treatment for individual patients. For example, when treating an individual for depression, a cultural psychiatrist might consider such factors as the psychological consequences of discrimination migratory and acculturative stress, aspects of native spirituality and religion or the belief in traditional or folk healing practices. At its core, cultural psychiatry seeks to increase the effectiveness of clinical services — diagnosis, care and treatment — for people of diverse backgrounds.

A cross-cultural psychiatrist makes a distinction between disease and illness.
A cross-cultural psychiatrist makes a distinction between disease and illness.

People who practice cultural psychiatry concentrate on the importance of cultural influences in mental health in an effort to provide culturally relevant care. The concept of culture is not so much attached to the discipline of psychiatry as integrated within it. For example, there is often a great variation in how people who are from differing cultures and who feel mentally unwell express their distress, both in language and conceptually. Therefore, for a cultural psychiatrist to better understand a patient’s mental state, it is often necessary for the clinician to gather information about the patient’s family background and his or her social/cultural context. Along with race, ethnicity and religion, relevant information might include personal and family aspirations, the perceived identifying features of socioeconomic class and his or her immigration or emigration experience and history.

The effects of acculturative stress are a focus of cultural psychiatry but generally are not addressed in traditional psychiatry. Acculturation occurs when one culture, or an individual within that culture, is modified or changed as a result of contact or absorption by another culture. The increase in migration of people and groups globally is one of the reasons behind the growth of cross-cultural approaches to mental illness. Cultural psychiatry not only takes into account the limitations of traditional mental illness categories, it also embraces culturally indigenous mental illness categories. The cross-cultural psychiatrist distinguishes between disease, which is the malfunctioning of biological or psychological processes, and illness, which is the personal and cultural reaction to the disease.

In cultural psychiatry, culture — often defined as the beliefs, values and practices of a specific ethno-cultural group — is not viewed as static. Culture, as it applies to an individual, is an ever-evolving dynamic concept that is affected not only by acculturation but by issues of poverty, social class and gender, among others. Furthermore, just because an individual is a member of a distinct culture, it does not necessarily mean that he or she adheres to all the beliefs, customs or rituals of the group at large. In cultural psychiatry, a patient is viewed both as an individual and as a social being within a cultural context.

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