mental health and mental illness in different cultures

the last few days, i have been thinking repeatedly about the ideas fellow vancouver blogger karen fung has brought up in her post on march 9. she muses about three topics, all of which fascinating. the one about mental health issues with immigrant populations is particularly intriguing, perhaps because for the past year, i’ve mostly worked with immigrants, and also because ethnic diversity is something very close to our hearts at the canadian mental health association.

karen says

as i have become more aware of my interaction with others and of my personal power in my relationships, i’ve realized how important language of empowerment is – and in some cases, even just language more broadly. one interest that i have (that i’m not sure i’ll ever be able to meaningfully pursue) is exploring mental health issues with immigrant populations …

what is the status of mental health stigma more generally in non-english media, and how are efforts at pushing that envelope? this is entirely out of self-interest; however, with populations around the world being more mobile and cultures more in flux, my read is that the ways of dealing with mental health issues the way my grandparents did – through self-medication, secret lives or behind closed doors – seems less and less viable all the time …

on a more specific, linguistic level, i’ve found english to be amazingly malleable in making words match the concepts ” people change and adapt phrases all the time to reflect, however artificially, a higher level of thinking that is non-judgmental, inclusive and accepting. but i can imagine that with other languages (say, the one i have most personal experience with, cantonese) this willingness to shift things might not exist the same way.

these are intriguing ideas. one thing that this makes me think of is that in german, my mother tongue, the concept/words “mental health” are not nearly as much in use as the concept/words “mental illness”. for example, if i search the english speaking google.com for the terms “mental health”, “mental illness” and “depression”, i get a close to 1:1:1 ratio. in google.de, on the other hand, the word “geistesgesundheit” (mental health), even when i add the related term “geistliche gesundheit”, relates to “geisteskrankheit” (mental illness) and depression in a ratio of 1:20:130.  mindboggling!

just to spin this a bit further – it seems to me that german has a similar malleability at the semantic (meaning) level but not on the sociolinguistic level. that is, the language structure is very capable – maybe even more so than english – of being bent this way and that to reflect many shades of meaning but on the level of actual language use, that just does not happen as much as in english.  similarly, the concept of political correctness, which is born from the desire to make language more reflective of societal changes, is not nearly as significant in german as it is in english.

what does it mean, then, when a person struggling with mental health issues lives in a country where mental illness is a much more frequently used term than mental health

i’ll assume that the situation in chinese speaking countries (china, hong kong, taiwan, singapore, parts of vietnam, malaysia, philippines, etc.) is similar to the situation in germany. one of my friends from mainlaind china agrees with me.  but that’s just two opinions – correct us if we’re wrong!

and what does it mean for a person from one of those countries when they move to a place like canada, the US or australia and encounter a totally new approach to mental illness? is it freeing, confusing, stunning?

2 thoughts on “mental health and mental illness in different cultures

  1. airdrie

    I would have loved to spend time abroad in my 20’s, but instead I stayed in Canada and married younger than I might have, did I not have an anxiety disorder…. I was afraid to go too far away from my therapist in Canada. Just my 2cents.

  2. sarah luczaj

    as far as i can see there is precious little flexibility in the polish language as far as words and concepts regarding mental health are concerned – which i find by turns sad, annoying, constraining, horrifying… in fact changes of all kind, diversity and difference do not go down well in the official story as told by the language we use. political correctness – nonexistant!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *