Cultural Beliefs Affect New Immigrants’ Use of Mental Health Services
The Washington Post on Tuesday examined how "cultural differences ... can have profound implications" 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 mental illness." Many immigrants are reluctant to seek early intervention for mental health issues, and it is more common for immigrants to experience treatment delays of months, which can lead to "a long-festering problem that has spiraled into a full-blown crisis requiring immediate hospitalization," according to the Post.
According to Lu, Asian immigrants seem to have a stronger sense of shame, stigma and silence regarding mental health issues than other groups. Koreans in particular are among the least likely to have medical insurance and are among the lowest users of all health services, the Post reports. Many Koreans seek help from churches for mental health problems, though few ministers are trained to recognize or address such issues, according to the Post. Esther Chung, a minister and part-time counselor at the Vienna, Va.-based Korean Family Counseling and Research Center, said, "Asians don't view [mental illness] as a sickness or an illness, but as a family curse. They try to take care of it themselves." Wun Jung Kim, a child psychiatrist and professor at the University of Pittsburgh, added that when Koreans seek help outside their families, it "lets people know there is a defect in the gene," which could hurt marriage prospects 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 often drove them to leave war-ravaged homelands," language barriers, long and inflexible work hours, and a lack of culturally sensitive health professionals are some of the obstacles immigrants face when seeking mental health services, the Post reports.
Health professionals working with immigrants try to discuss mental health issues in a way that encourages patients to seek help while not drawing attention to immigrants who already might feel stigmatized and vulnerable. Ester Chung said that many of the patients calling the Korean Family Counseling and Research Center do not understand the need for more than one counseling session or that their sessions and information will be kept confidential. She said, "Confidentiality is a new idea for a lot of immigrants." Another obstacle to treatment is that many immigrants tend to describe psychiatric problems in physical terms, which can "obscure diagnosis and complicate treatment," the Post reports (Boodman, Washington Post, 9/4).