Identity and Belonging: Cultural Relevance in Mental Health Services

By Lauren

As a first-gen Asian-Australian born from immigrant parents, accessing mental health services suitable for my cultural needs has been very challenging over the course my of life.

As a child, the first language I spoke was Vietnamese. I attended language school when I was young, but by Grade 3, could no longer afford to keep going. The language barrier between me and my parents grew as I got older, and when my mental health started to deteriorate, they couldn’t recognise the warning signs or provide me with the support I needed.

Mental health is often overlooked in traditional Asian cultures, particularly in poor, war-torn countries where the only priority of health is to address basic needs of food, safety, and shelter.

To my parents, mental health didn’t exist – to survive you need to work, and when things get tough, you work even harder. That’s all they knew and to survive in a foreign country, that’s all they did.

They couldn’t understand what I was experiencing, they didn’t know how to help, and we couldn’t communicate – sometimes on a very basic level, let alone within the context of mental health.

From the age of 17 to 28, I tried therapy with at least 13 different physicians, all of whom are white. I’d talk about the language barrier with my parents, the immense pressure of being a child of immigrants, and the constant struggle of identity and belonging, but speaking to someone about issues they can’t relate to makes it incredibly difficult to build a connection. Trying and failing to connect with what felt like every mental health professional took a huge toll on me and my already fragile mental state.

I gave up trying to find a psych a few years ago and eventually settled on working with a kinesiologist instead. She did some great work and helped me with a lot, but again, she was a white woman that couldn’t understand or help me with the cultural issues I had and eventually I stopped seeing her too.

In the last few years, racial tensions have increased around the globe, with the Black Lives Matter Movement and increase of anti-Asian hate crimes, systemic oppression of the culturally diverse has been more present than ever. I began to realise that my inability to connect with mental health services was not for a lack of trying or because I am picky or difficult, but rather because the health systems in place are not designed to fill the needs of people like me.

With a shifted focus on cultural adversity and inequality we face, I have noticed BIPOC communities working together to take control of the narrative. We are beginning to share our stories, our challenges, reconnect with our cultural roots and address the need of culturally relevant services. I was finally able to link in with an Australian-Vietnamese psychologist this year and the difference in my engagement has been substantial. For someone to understand the cultural context of my upbringing, my family and what it’s like to be an Asian in a western country, it’s a welcome relief and I don’t feel so alone anymore.

If you have had similar experiences and want to connect with culturally relevant services, please feel free to explore the following resources:

Shapes and Sounds
Shapes and Sounds is an online platform that talk about Asian Australian mental health and wellbeing.” Shapes and Sounds has a resource list of Asian Australian practitioners, nationwide.

Asian Mental Health Collective
“It is the mission of AMHC to normalize and de-stigmatize mental health within the Asian community.”

The Asian Australian Project
The Asian Australian Project (AAP) is a not-for-profit initiative run by and for young Asian-Australians and more broadly, Asians Between Cultures (ABCs): those who grow up sharing cultural influences from both the East and the West.”

Being Asian Australian
“Charting The Voices And Achievements Of ALL Asian Australians Everywhere!”

Facebook group – Subtle Asian Mental Health
“We want Asians to realize they are not alone in their struggles and experiences and that there are others who are here to provide support.”

Our Directory
“A community generated resource, bringing together mental health support info for Blak, Black and Brown folks across Aoteroa New Zealand and so-called Australia”

Multicultural Mental Health Advocates Collective
“A capacity building support network for multicultural humans working in the mental health space.”

Additionally, if you have any resources you’d like to share please feel free to send us a message!