LIKE NOTHING HAPPENED
How mental health challenges are experienced differently through different cultural lenses
By Christine Jean-Baptiste
I was 16 when I told my mother I felt like I was depressed, that there was something in my mind that just wasn’t clicking. I saw her face consider many different emotions, but the one she picked that day was denial. So, we went on like nothing happened. Fast forward to a couple of years later when I again brought up the subject of mental health, and she told me, “You know, Chris, us Haitians, we don’t ask for help. We learn to live with the pain and suffering.”
That’s when I understood that my experience with mental health in a Haitian household may differ from the people who didn’t share my cultural background.
Research shows that the topic of mental health varies through different cultures we identify with because of how our environment affects us.
For instance, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), more than 200 languages are spoken across the country, with 20% of Canadians having another language other than English and French as a mother tongue.
The Commission says that these ethnic groups can experience different mental illnesses caused by language barriers, discrimination and sense of displacement, and, most importantly, “their cultural background may lead them to describe the problem in ways that are unfamiliar to service providers, which can cause misunderstanding.”
“What we understand under labels such as anger, sadness, depression or anxiety can vary across cultures and so does how we express and experience these,” says Dr. Ana Gómez-Carrillo, project lead at the Multicultural Mental Health Resource Centre in Montreal. “The labels available to express distress, as well as the explanatory models the labels refer to, shape our experience of distress across cultures.”
My understanding of sadness and anxiousness as a kid was that it was something you felt for a moment, in your room alone or in the pages of your diary—only. The way I expressed distress, what I knew of it, was a process of suppression.
Gabrielle Lachance, 20, from Ottawa, is a ballerina living in Montreal. Once she entered the dance industry in a new school environment, she faced changes in all aspects of her life: from living by herself for the first time to realizing she was struggling with anorexia.
“When I lost 10 pounds in the span of six months, no one ever said anything, like, ‘Are you okay?’ or ‘What's going on?’—none of my friends and none of my teachers. I know that they noticed but probably thought, ‘Oh well she’s already small and we value that kind of body in this industry,’” says Lachance.
Seated on a park bench on a Friday afternoon, Lachance opens up about the unspoken privileges she has based on her appearance. She tells me that there’s privilege in being a thin, white woman, because her body has always been accepted by society, so why would she feel like there was anything wrong with it?
“I remember when I was younger, and I heard about eating disorders in health class, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I would never have an eating disorder.’ This just shows me that no one is immune to mental health issues,” she says.
I bring up the topic of culture and Lachance tells me she identifies with her white, French and ballet backgrounds. She explains that all eating disorders stem from the same place: a desire to control something when you lose control over other circumstances. However, she says, she can’t help but think that white, Western standards of beauty that shame women who are anything but thin have also contributed.
Paul Vallejo, a 21-year-old living in Long Island, New York, identifies with his Peruvian culture. During his freshman and sophomore year of college, he experienced mental health issues that stemmed from a past relationship.
“Honestly, I guess it says something about my culture or upbringing, because I didn’t even think about going to my parents. They weren’t even an option to me in terms of people I could reach out to,” he tells me.
Vallejo says when he finally decided to tell his parents about the things he was going through, he never really put in the effort to articulate, because in his household there wasn’t much significance placed on romantic relationships. His family has always prioritized things like career success, instead.
“In the 6th or 7th grade, I would observe how my friends, at the time, would talk to their parents and each one of them had a very comfortable relationship with them. They talked to their parents as friends, whereas I would talk to my mom like a mom. Reflecting on it, I would assume that in high school, if (friends) were going through something, their parents would be the first people they would go to.”
Gómez-Carrillo tells me it’s important to acknowledge the root of these kinds of disparities, which is more political than we might think. She suggests that behind what’s often referred to as cultural differences when it comes to communicating about mental health, other crucial issues are at play that affect how people cope with mental illness.
“Globally, there's a power dynamic that shapes everything, so it will obviously shape access to resources. The power dynamics of the Western world inevitably impact mental health worldwide and psychiatry just as much, if not more,” she tells me.
“You can’t just label something as culture and ignore other factors, such as unequal access to resources or opportunities, (for example,) education or other socio-economic privileges, that are subjected to the power dynamics that shape everyday life and continue to perpetuate inequalities. So, I think frequently complex issues get blurred and labeled as ‘cultural’ instead of unpacking everything that actually matters.”
Thinking back to the conversation I had with my mother, my 16-year-old self felt angry and hurt when she neglected my feelings. But I hadn’t considered the lack of opportunity she had to discuss mental health back in Haiti. Nor how poverty, racism and systemic inequity could have played a part in the lack of resources she had access to—and in the amount of time and energy she had available for thinking about her own mental wellbeing.
Globally, there’s an imbalance in the way mental health is talked about and the way resources are offered to different cultural communities. And I now know this is all too common—and a generational problem—in my culture. For too long, all I knew was being uncomfortable with emotional vulnerability.
Now that I understand how this discomfort has been passed down to me, I’m better equipped to push past it.
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