I’ve had a conviction lately.
It’s something I’ve known to be important for some time, but now it comes to me as clear as day. The proverbial lightbulb has cut on and the pieces of the puzzle are now beginning to shape the whole picture in a way that I feel more comfortable articulating.
We can’t talk about mental health without talking about culture.
And some may be thinking, well duh Brittney, that was your big light bulb moment?
It wasn’t so much this statement but the nuances that weave together and the dynamics that exist between culture and mental health, which make it so important that they coexist. If we’re truly going to have a holistic approach that leads to the healing and recovery of ourselves and others then we must also be culturally competent.
Okay, this is no new idea. But for those who are wanting to dig more into this intersectionality, let’s walk through it together.
Culture, by definition, is a society’s shared and socially transmitted ideas, values, and perceptions, which are used to make sense of experience and generate behavior and are reflected in that behavior(1). This includes social institutions and government, technology and media, beliefs & faith communities, racial background, traditions, customs, etc.
Everyone lives in the larger culture as well as within a subset of cultures. For example, you may live according to the larger modern-day American culture and then within the subculture of being raised in the Black, Latino, White or Asian community, etc. You may further intersect with living in church subculture and have been shaped by the worldviews, doctrines, lifestyles and even fashions of the church you belong to, which can also vary among denomination or the location of your church- being in a southern church vs attending church in Hollywood, California. And trust me, I’ve been in both.
All of these layers, from the country you live in, to what part of the country you were raised in, to your racial background, to the doctrinal beliefs you’ve adapted, are coexisting together, shaping your way of living, your perspectives, and your choices.
Some consider themselves “color-blind”, which is typically intended as a statement of equality and seeing all people as equal no matter their race or background. This, subsequently, leads us to give lesser thought to cultural background.
To be “color-blind” or culture-blind is to be ignorant of the very nuances that have shaped the person into who they are standing before you today. We can’t be afraid of truly seeing people- and the dynamics of both the beauty and hardship that have played into their culture, as it has affected their being. And let that understanding be the starting grounds for genuine love. We don’t have to have all the answers, but lets at least choose to be receptive to these varying experiences as we’re called to love one another as ourselves. This is true of both the faith community and the mental health community.
I would even go as far as to say that culture may shape a person’s very DNA. There is a study called epigenetics which examines how genes are inherited, transmitted and expressed through generations. What’s even more interesting among these findings is that our genes can be changed by our environment. We have somewhere around 24,000 genes bestowed upon us by our parents, half from our mother and half from our father. While we carry thousands of these genes, not all of the traits we carry are activated or expressed. Some lie dormant. However, research has found that the environment and your genes are interacting with one another and certain environments and experiences can turn on some inherited qualities that may have been dormant- conditions that may run in the family like addiction, anxiety, depression, and chronic illnesses. Hint: Trauma is a big activator of some of the more negative characteristics and complications we’d rather stay dormant.
It goes back to the nature vs nurture argument. Are we our genes or are we the result of how we’ve been raised? Long story short, we’re both. While our inherited genes aren’t our destiny, they do play a big role in charting our natural path. So how does this tie back into culture? Well to put it simply, your culture is your environment. So depending on your cultural upbringing, including things like parenting styles, socioeconomic status and the opportunities or lack of opportunities that came with it, a history of cultural trauma and violence, or generational mental health conditions, this can all play a role in how we were shaped. That includes the protective or non-protective factors that were in place in our lives to prevent against the unhealthy and harmful traits that can be activated in our lives. If we ignore this, we may miss the very biology that has wired a person.
All of this being said, I believe there are two main areas we can’t dismiss when it comes to culture and mental health: the individual’s culture and the modern-day culture that surrounds them.
The Individual’s Culture:
This encompasses the environment the person was raised in, their relationship to their primary caregivers and how that’s shaped their identity and views of the world around them, their racial community- are they descendants of immigration, slavery, mass incarceration, poverty and socioeconomic status, a community that had to rebuild from captivity or natural disaster?
These events can shape cultural thinking, attitudes, and way of life when affected on a mass scale. This can also determine how that culture deals with their mental health. It’s a luxury to think about your mental health or have access to help when you’re consumed by the basic needs of food, shelter, safety, and survival. And if one is raised in this stricken mentality then it’s more than likely mental health care falls lower on the list of priorities. If we can’t meet a person in their reality, then any form of help is dismissive at best.
Modern Day Culture:
We’re now living in a post-industrial, capitalist, social media-driven society where the demands are never-ending and the need to hustle for a place of significance in this world drives an unprecedented level of anxiety. All of these dynamics are affecting our mental health as a whole.
The news is constantly in our face. Politics, economics and cultural differences are as polarizing as they’ve ever been. We are oversaturated with the amount of content in the palm of our hands. Social media has made us the most connected and disconnected we’ve been, as the internet has taken off faster than we’ve assumed the skills to manage its progressiveness. How people interact with these online platforms, including their age and point of formative years makes a difference. There are the messages we have to reckon with from media in a Kardashian and “me too” era. How people are navigating a competitive job market in a growing population. How we bear the weight of debt as a national means of starting a life.
Where all of these large scale, societal factors are intersecting in someone’s personal life is absolutely shaping their individual mental health.
We could go on forever discussing each distinct factor alone. But my primary purpose for writing this was to expand awareness in both the faith and mental health world as it intersects with culture. If we want to be true brothers and sisters, true helpers and healers, we can’t afford to overlook this intersectionality. I personally choose not to anymore.
- William A. Haviland … [and others]. Cultural Anthropology : the Human Challenge. Belmont, CA :Thomson Wadsworth, 2008.