Cultural competence

It’s been a full-on few weeks/months, not leaving me with much time to post, even though I’ve been doing lots of psychology- and neuroscience-related things.

I recently attended some talks on mental health in refugees, people from CALD1 backgrounds, and Indigenous people. Really interesting and important stuff. How appropriate is it to assess someone with these backgrounds using established “mainstream” tools? How do mental illness symptoms manifest themselves differently in different cultures? What are some of the signs to look out for in terms of trauma, torture, domestic violence? And what are the risk factors for developing a mental illness in these populations? These are some of the points raised in the talks, and things I’ve been thinking about lately.

It all comes under the umbrella of culturally-competent practice, which in a nutshell, is not imposing assumptions, and being open to information that may conflict with your beliefs/stereotypes/established norms, etc to be able to treat people from cultural backgrounds different to your own. The main point I took away regarding culturally-competent practice is that it’s not necessarily “how much” you know, but how open you are to receiving information. I would add to this the need to be aware of your own context, and of biases and beliefs that influence you – no one is a blank slate and I think the only way to deal with this is to be mindful of your own position and what you’re bringing to the table.

Here are some points I picked up:

1. Being an immigrant does not inherently boost the risk of developing a mental illness. Pre- and post-migration factors play a big part. Pre-migration factors may be political turmoil in the country of origin, trauma/torture/persecution of yourself or family, having to leave family behind. Post-migration factors include not having a good support network, not being able to find employment, language and cultural barriers to receiving appropriate care, and discrimination.

2. In many cultures, it is perfectly appropriate to have experiences that would normally put you in the “severe, possibly psychotic mental illness” category quite squarely – such as hearing voices. This is quite usual for many Indigenous people, who may hear family members and friends who’ve passed away talking to them.

3. It’s important to look at methods of healing traditionally endorsed by the client’s/patient’s culture. Normally healthcare in Australia stays away (or tries to) from anything to do with spirituality or religion,
but in some cases it would be appropriate to ask a spiritual leader for a prayer, or wearing a holy talisman, having a house blessed, etc.

4. Advocacy is important, especially for people who’ve left family behind – producing supporting documentation to help reunite the family, for example, or that shows that certain types of work are not appropriate, or to help secure disability services as needed.

5. Respect for boundaries is very important, for example choosing age- and gender- appropriate health providers for people from cultures that emphasise a separation of values between such groups.

6. Body language may not always be read correctly. For example, avoiding eye contact may be a way of showing respect. Also, short “yes/no” answers may be a way of avoiding real issues in an attempt to make an assessment/interview/session come to an end quickly, so these are to be avoided. Open-ended questions and plenty of time for answers are best (although it’s frustrating that the health system in general really doesn’t encourage spending a lot of time with each individual).

7. This is really basic but also really important: explaining every procedure, therapy, medication, etc in a way that can be easily understood and making the treatment process collaborative, rather than something being ordered “from above” by an authority figure (which, let’s face it, would make many of the people in the above groups quite uneasy, frightened or non-compliant, and with really good reason – or, on the flipside, some people may comply too easily and not ask enough questions, without fully understanding a procedure). It’s best to have an interpreter or a cultural consultant present, rather than family members (although interpreters can be hard to find with languages that are not common community languages).

These are the things that come to mind – I may add more if I remember other points later.

And some links:

    NSW Multicultural Health Communication Service

    Health information and resources in languages other than English – by language or by topic

    NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS)

    The Australian Indigenous Psychologists Association (AIPA)

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1. CALD = culturally and linguistically diverse

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