Culturally appropriate services that respect social identity

October 5, 2017

Racialized people, women, members of LGBTQ communities, Indigenous people, people with disabilities, both younger and older people, immigrants, and refugees are at increased risk of mental health challenges, and may face systemic barriers in accessing services and treatment.

Even when treatment and services are available, they are not always culturally appropriate. Staff may not understand different cultural values or different understandings of mental illness. There may also be language barriers. Treatments that are standard and relatively effective for one community may not be appropriate for another. As the Mental Health Commission of Canada points out, it is not enough to offer diversity training. We need to ensure that health care providers, “also acknowledge the influence that social disparities and imbalances of power can have on relationships”. We also need health care professionals who have a range of experience and social identities to better serve people seeking mental health services.

Individual communities and groups also face particular challenges. Being alert to these differences can be critical when it comes to recognizing and appropriately treating mental health challenges. For example, caregivers need to take into account things like gender, age, social and cultural factors, and personal history. Racism is a risk factor for post-traumatic stress disorder. Discrimination faced by LGBTQ people can have an impact on mental health. After centuries of colonialism and the cultural genocide caused by residential schools, Indigenous youth are at a much higher risk for suicide than non-Indigenous youth. An Indigenous worldview on mental health is quite different than our existing medical system’s perspective on mental health.

We need to lobby for training and services that recognize differences in culture, values, and lived experience so that all providers can be appropriately trained, recognize the limitations of their own knowledge, and be open to asking questions instead of making assumptions.