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Cultural Beliefs Affect New Immigrants' Use Of Mental Health Services

Armen Hareyan's picture

The Washington Poston Tuesday examined how "cultural differences ... can have profoundimplications" on immigrants' access to mental health services.

Francis Lu, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of California-San Francisco,said, "Often there isn't even a concept that a problem is a mentalillness." Many immigrants are reluctant to seek early intervention formental health issues, and it is more common for immigrants toexperience treatment delays of months, which can lead to "along-festering problem that has spiraled into a full-blown crisisrequiring immediate hospitalization," according to the Post.

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Accordingto Lu, Asian immigrants seem to have a stronger sense of shame, stigmaand silence regarding mental health issues than other groups. Koreansin particular are among the least likely to have medical insurance andare among the lowest users of all health services, the Postreports. Many Koreans seek help from churches for mental healthproblems, though few ministers are trained to recognize or address suchissues, according to the Post. Esther Chung, a ministerand part-time counselor at the Vienna, Va.-based Korean FamilyCounseling and Research Center, said, "Asians don't view [mentalillness] as a sickness or an illness, but as a family curse. They tryto take care of it themselves." Wun Jung Kim, a child psychiatrist andprofessor at the University of Pittsburgh,added that when Koreans seek help outside their families, it "letspeople know there is a defect in the gene," which could hurt marriageprospects for siblings and relatives.

Joyce Chung, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University,said, "It's not that (immigrants) have higher rates of mental illness,but they are less likely to seek services" than those born in the U.S.Poverty, a lack of health insurance, "a history of trauma that oftendrove them to leave war-ravaged homelands," language barriers, long andinflexible work hours, and a lack of culturally sensitive healthprofessionals are some of the obstacles immigrants face when seekingmental health services, the Post reports.

Healthprofessionals working with immigrants try to discuss mental healthissues in a way that encourages patients to seek help while not drawingattention to immigrants who already might feel stigmatized andvulnerable. Ester Chung said that many of the patients calling theKorean Family Counseling and Research Center do not understand the needfor more than one counseling session or that their sessions andinformation will be kept confidential. She said, "Confidentiality is anew idea for a lot of immigrants." Another obstacle to treatment isthat many immigrants tend to describe psychiatric problems in physicalterms, which can "obscure diagnosis and complicate treatment," the Post reports (Boodman, Washington Post, 9/4).

Reprinted with permission from kaisernetwork.org. You can view theentire Kaiser WeeklyHealth Disparities Report,search the archives, and sign up for email delivery at kaisernetwork.org/email. The Kaiser Weekly Health Disparities Report is published for kaisernetwork.org, afree service of The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.