When Arati Nair was 11 years old, she started having mental health problems and decided to seek help.
But she says the advice she received did more harm than good.
Ms Nair’s family had settled in Werribee, in Melbourne’s west, after leaving rural India, but she said the councilor had no cultural sensitivity or awareness.
“They kind of made me hate my culture more for a very long time,” she said.
“They give you Bible verses and (tell you) this is what you should follow, don’t think about other things.”
Other professionals Ms Nair consulted were little better, she said.
“The first two counselors I met immediately trashed my family in the first session,” she said.
It wasn’t until she met with a culturally informed counselor that she felt understood.
“It makes a huge difference when there is someone who understands and doesn’t demonize your home.”
Ms Nair, who is currently studying at university to become a culturally informed psychologist, wants to work with neurodiverse children.
“That’s where I wish I had that support when I was growing up,” she said.
“I was like an experiment”
After Geetha Chetty also found that her attempts to seek mental health support were undermined by her counselors’ lack of cultural awareness, she opened her own mental health practice.
“I was like an experiment,” she said.
“I would waste half my session trying to explain to them the cultural context and why I think a certain way, and most of the session was over.”
Dr Chetty now runs Enlightened Mind at Williams Landing in Melbourne’s west.
Her practice provides culturally competent advice to her clients, 90 percent of whom are from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds.
Dr Chetty said cultural awareness was about recognizing similarities and differences between CALD groups, while cultural sensitivity focused on how the counselor’s personal beliefs, values and lived experiences could impact on the advice and treatment they provided to clients.
Cultural barriers to mental health help
Studies have shown that people from CALD communities are also less likely to seek mental health support in the first place.
Dr Chetty said access to culturally informed counseling could “normalise” mental health treatment and allow people in CALD communities to feel more comfortable seeking help.
Dr Queenie Wu, a Melbourne clinical psychologist who specializes in providing culturally sensitive care, said “keeping face” was a significant barrier preventing some people of Asian descent from seeking mental health support.
“Saving face” meant preserving one’s reputation or dignity, she said.
“Thus, mental health problems could be perceived as a loss of face not only for the individual, but also for the family (and) therefore, this individual would avoid seeking help so as not to bring shame or embarrassment to his family.” Dr. Wu said.
She added that members of Asian communities – who place a high value on social and family collectivism – often repress their mental health issues to avoid “disruptions” to family harmony.
Dr Wu said culturally relevant counseling played a crucial role in dispelling this type of stigma around help-seeking and helped clients feel safe talking about their mental health issues.
“By tailoring the counseling approach to the cultural norms and values of diverse groups, individuals are more likely to feel understood and respected,” Dr. Wu said.
Mental Health Australia chief executive Carolyn Nikoloski said there were also other factors that could impact CALD people’s access to mental health services.
“We know that there are many financial barriers to accessing care and this is particularly pronounced right now with the cost of living crisis that we are all experiencing and going through,” Ms. Nikoloski said.
New national data released by Mental Health Australia shows people living in wealthier socio-economic areas access mental health support services twice as fast as people living in lower socio-economic areas like Western Sydney .
This is despite higher estimated rates of mental health problems in lower socio-economic areas.
Ms. Nikoloski said the distribution and availability of mental health providers was likely a factor.
She added that Mental Health Australia had worked with CALD communities through the Embrace Multicultural Mental Health project to help multicultural groups learn more about mental health and the resources available.
The federally funded project also helped mental health agencies provide culturally appropriate counseling to CALD groups.
“We think this is a really important part of the solution in terms of how we improve mental health in CALD communities and also overcome some of the barriers to getting help, like stigma,” she said.
Although access to culturally appropriate counseling still needs to be improved, Dr Wu said attitudes towards mental health support in CALD communities were clearly changing.
“I don’t think my CALD group clients reached 1 percent…early in my career,” Dr. Wu said.
“I am pleased to report that approximately 99 percent of our customers are now of Asian descent.”