The relevance of culture in mental health services

by TheEditor

Categories: Investigative, Management, Mental Health

I imagine that most people would begin thinking of the influence of culture on expression of signs and symptoms among mental disorders. However, there are wider areas of importance.

What is culture?

The concept of ‘culture’ is broad and multifaceted, encompassing a wide range of ideas, practices, and societal norms. The main concepts that comprise culture:

  1. Shared beliefs and values: Culture is often defined by a shared set of beliefs and values that guide behaviour within a group. These beliefs and values can be about religion, morality, the role of individuals in society, and more.
  2. Traditions and rituals: These are practices that are passed down from generation to generation within a culture. They can include everything from holiday celebrations to daily routines.
  3. Language: Language is a key part of culture, as it is the primary means of communication within a group. It includes not only spoken and written language, but also body language, signs, and symbols.
  4. Arts and literature: The arts, including music, dance, visual art, and literature, often reflect a culture’s beliefs, values, and experiences.
  5. Social structure and institutions: The way a society is organised, including its institutions (like government, education, and family structures), is a key part of its culture.
  6. Material culture: This refers to the physical objects, resources, and spaces that people use to define their culture. This can include everything from homes and cities to clothing and food.
  7. Norms and laws: These are the rules and expectations that guide behaviour within a culture. They can be formal, like laws, or informal, like social norms.
  8. Cultural evolution and change: Culture is not static; it evolves and changes over time. This can be due to internal factors, like generational shifts, or external factors, like contact with other cultures.

Clinical relevance

Culture can significantly influence how mental disorders are perceived, experienced, and expressed. This can affect the presentation of signs and symptoms in several ways:

  1. Perception of symptoms: Different cultures may have different interpretations of what constitutes a mental health issue. For example, what might be considered a sign of depression in one culture might be viewed as a normal reaction to stress in another.
  2. Expression of symptoms: Cultural norms can influence how individuals express distress. In some cultures, it might be more acceptable to express distress physically rather than emotionally, leading to more reports of physical symptoms (like headaches or fatigue) rather than emotional symptoms (like sadness or hopelessness).
  3. Stigma and disclosure: In cultures where there is a high level of stigma associated with mental illness, individuals may be less likely to disclose their symptoms or seek help. This can affect the presentation and recognition of mental disorders.
  4. Coping mechanisms: Cultural beliefs and values can influence how individuals cope with mental health issues. For example, in some cultures, individuals might turn to spiritual or religious practices for relief from their symptoms.
  5. Help-seekingĀ behaviour: Cultural norms can influence whether, when, and how individuals seek help for mental health issues. Some cultures may place a high value on self-reliance and discourage seeking help, while others may encourage turning to family, community members, or spiritual leaders for support.
  6. Diagnostic bias: Cultural differences can also lead to diagnostic bias. Mental health professionals may misinterpret cultural practices or expressions of distress as symptoms of a mental disorder, leading to overdiagnosis or misdiagnosis.
  7. Cultural idioms of distress: Some cultures have specific ways of expressing distress that may not align with Western conceptions of mental illness. These “cultural idioms of distress” can include unique symptoms, behaviours, or experiences that are recognised as signs of distress within the culture but may not be recognised as such outside of it.

In order to provide culturally competent care, mental health professionals need to be aware of these cultural influences and consider them when assessing and treating mental disorders. This can involve using culturally appropriate assessment tools, being aware of potential biases, and taking into account the individual’s cultural background and experiences.

Service relevance

Culture plays a crucial role in many aspects of mental health services, beyond just the presentation and understanding of mental disorders. Here are some ways in which culture is important in mental health services:

  1. Access to care: Cultural factors can influence access to mental health services. For example, language barriers can prevent individuals from seeking help or receiving adequate care. Stigma associated with mental illness in certain cultures can also deter people from accessing services.
  2. Treatment preferences: Different cultures may have different preferences or expectations for treatment. Some may prefer medication, while others may prefer psychotherapy or alternative treatments such as traditional healing practices.
  3. Therapeutic relationship: Culture can influence the therapeutic relationship. For example, cultural differences in communication styles or expectations about the roles of the therapist and client can impact the effectiveness of therapy.
  4. Cultural competence: Mental health professionals need to be culturally competent, meaning they need to understand and respect the cultural backgrounds of their clients. This can involve being aware of cultural differences, avoiding stereotypes, and adapting treatment approaches to be culturally sensitive.
  5. Family and community involvement: In many cultures, family and community play a significant role in an individual’s mental health. Mental health services may need to involve family members or community leaders in treatment, or consider their views and wishes.
  6. Prevention and outreach: Understanding cultural factors can help in designing effective prevention and outreach programs. For example, mental health campaigns can be tailored to address specific cultural beliefs or attitudes about mental health.
  7. Policy and advocacy: Cultural understanding is also important in policy making and advocacy. Policies need to be culturally sensitive to ensure they are effective and equitable. Advocacy efforts can also benefit from understanding cultural attitudes towards mental health.

In summary, culture is a key factor in all aspects of mental health services, from access to care and treatment preferences, to the therapeutic relationship and prevention efforts. Culturally sensitive and competent care can lead to better mental health outcomes and greater equity in mental health services.

Organisational cultures

The shared values, beliefs, and practices within a workplace, can have a significant impact on employees, affecting their job satisfaction, productivity, and overall well-being.

Positive impacts:

  1. Job satisfaction: A positive organisational culture can lead to increased job satisfaction. When employees feel valued, respected, and part of a team, they are more likely to enjoy their work.
  2. Productivity: Positive cultures often foster a sense of purpose and motivation among employees, leading to increased productivity. Employees are more likely to be engaged and committed to their work when they feel aligned with the company’s values and goals.
  3. Retention: Companies with strong, positive cultures tend to have lower turnover rates. Employees are more likely to stay with a company where they feel appreciated and where their work is aligned with their personal values.
  4. Innovation: A culture that encourages creativity and risk-taking can lead to innovation. Employees are more likely to think outside the box and come up with new ideas when they feel supported in doing so.
  5. Teamwork: Positive organisational cultures often emphasise collaboration and teamwork, leading to better communication and cooperation among employees.

Negative Impacts:

  1. Stress: A negative organisational culture can lead to increased stress among employees. This can be due to factors like excessive workload, lack of support, or a hostile work environment.
  2. Burnout: In cultures where overwork is the norm, employees may experience burnout, which can lead to physical and mental health problems.
  3. Low morale: Negative cultures can lead to low morale among employees. This can result in decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, and high turnover rates.
  4. Ethical issues: In some cases, a negative organisational culture can lead to ethical issues. For example, if a company culture prioritises profits over ethics, employees may feel pressured to engage in unethical behaviour.
  5. Lack of innovation: In cultures that do not encourage creativity or risk-taking, innovation may be stifled. Employees may be less likely to come up with new ideas or solutions if they fear they will be punished for failure.

It is important to note that the impact of organisational culture can vary widely depending on the specific culture and the individual employee. Some people may thrive in a highly competitive culture, for example, while others may find it stressful.

Culture and risk management

Culture plays a significant role in organisational risk management. The culture of an organisation can influence how it identifies, assesses, and responds to risks.

  1. Risk perception and tolerance: The culture of an organisation can influence how it perceives and tolerates risk. Some organisations may have a culture that is more risk-averse, while others may be more willing to take risks. This can affect the types of risks the organisation is willing to take on and how it manages those risks.
  2. Risk identification and assessment: A culture that encourages open communication and transparency can facilitate the identification and assessment of risks. Employees may be more likely to report potential risks and participate in risk assessments if they feel their input is valued and they won’t be penalised for bringing up issues.
  3. Risk response: The organisation’s culture can influence how it responds to risks. For example, a culture that values innovation and agility may be more likely to see risks as opportunities for improvement and growth, while a more conservative culture may focus on avoiding or mitigating risks.
  4. Compliance and ethics: A strong culture of compliance and ethics can reduce legal and reputational risks. If employees understand and share the organisation’s values and standards, they are less likely to engage in behaviour that could harm the organisation.
  5. Learning from mistakes: An organisational culture that values learning and continuous improvement can help the organisation better manage risks. When mistakes or failures are seen as opportunities to learn and improve, rather than as something to be punished, the organisation can more effectively identify and address the root causes of risks.
  6. Risk culture: Some organisations aim to develop a specific “risk culture,” where managing risk is seen as everyone’s responsibility and is integrated into all aspects of the organisation’s operations. This can help ensure that risk management is not just a top-down process, but is embedded throughout the organisation.

In summary, the culture of an organisation can significantly influence its approach to risk management. A positive and supportive culture can facilitate effective risk management, while a negative or unsupportive culture can hinder it.


Culture and teamwork are closely intertwined, as the culture of a group or organisation can significantly influence how teams function and perform.

  1. Shared values and goals: A strong culture often includes shared values and goals that can help unite team members. When everyone is working towards the same objectives and shares a common understanding of what is important, it can foster a sense of unity and cooperation.
  2. Communication norms: Culture can dictate how communication is handled within a team. For example, a culture that values open communication and transparency will likely encourage team members to share ideas, voice concerns, and collaborate effectively.
  3. Conflict resolution: The culture of an organisation or group can influence how conflicts are handled. In some cultures, conflicts may be addressed openly and constructively, while in others, they may be avoided or suppressed.
  4. Decision-making processes: Culture can also influence how decisions are made within a team. Some cultures may emphasise consensus and collaboration, while others may give more decision-making power to certain individuals or roles.
  5. Trust and psychological safety: A positive culture can foster trust among team members and create a sense of psychological safety, where individuals feel comfortable taking risks, making mistakes, and expressing their thoughts and ideas. This can greatly enhance teamwork and collaboration.
  6. Diversity and inclusion: A culture that values diversity and inclusion can lead to more effective teamwork by bringing together individuals with different perspectives, skills, and experiences. This can lead to more innovative solutions and better decision-making.
  7. Performance standards: The culture of an organisation can set the standards for performance and behaviour within a team. This can influence how team members work together and what they strive to achieve.

Cultural biases

Individual people are often now aware of cultural biases.

Cultural biases often operate at an unconscious level, which means people may not be aware of them. These biases are ingrained through socialisation processes and can influence our perceptions, judgments, and behaviours without our conscious awareness. This phenomenon is often referred to as “implicit bias” or “unconscious bias.”

Reasons why individuals might not be aware of their cultural biases:

  1. Normalisation: Cultural biases are often so deeply ingrained and normalised in our societies that we do not recognise them as biases. They’re simply seen as “the way things are.
  2. Unconscious processing: Our brains are constantly processing a vast amount of information, and to do so efficiently, they often rely on shortcuts or heuristics, which can lead to biases. These processes are largely unconscious, so we may not be aware of the biases they produce.
  3. Defensive reactions: Recognising our own biases can be uncomfortable, as it challenges our self-perception of being fair and unbiased. As a result, we may unconsciously deny or rationalise our biases.
  4. Lack of exposure: If we’re not exposed to diverse perspectives and experiences, we may not have the opportunity to recognise and challenge our biases.

Wrestling with biases

Implicit bias training, also known as unconscious bias training, is a popular approach used by many organisations to help individuals recognise and mitigate their biases. The effectiveness of this training, however, is a topic of ongoing debate and research.

Some studies suggest that implicit bias training can increase awareness of biases and can change attitudes, at least in the short term. Participants often report increased understanding of the concept of implicit bias and greater awareness of their own potential biases.

However, evidence is mixed on whether these changes in attitudes lead to long-term changes in behaviour. Some studies have found that the effects of implicit bias training can fade over time, and there is less evidence that it consistently changes behaviour or reduces discrimination in the workplace.

There are several potential reasons for these mixed results:

  1. One-size-fits-all approach: Many implicit bias trainings use a generic approach that may not be relevant or effective for all individuals or organisations.
  2. Lack of follow-up: Training is often a one-time event, without ongoing reinforcement or follow-up to help individuals apply what they’ve learned.
  3. Defensiveness: The training can cause defensiveness or backlash if individuals feel they are being accused of being biased or racist.
  4. Overemphasis on individual attitudes: The training often focuses on changing individual attitudes, without addressing the systemic or structural biases that exist within organisations.

To increase the effectiveness of implicit bias training, experts recommend strategies such as tailoring the training to the specific context of the organisation, providing ongoing reinforcement and follow-up, addressing systemic biases in addition to individual attitudes, and combining training with other diversity and inclusion initiatives.

It is also important to note that while implicit bias training can be a part of an organisation’s diversity and inclusion efforts, it should not be the only strategy used. Other strategies, such as changes in policies and practices, mentoring and sponsorship programs, and efforts to increase diversity at all levels of the organisation, are also crucial for promoting diversity and reducing discrimination.

Culture and change management

Culture plays a significant role in change management, which is the process of helping individuals and organisations adapt to new systems, processes, or ways of doing things. How culture can affect change management:

  1. Resistance to change: Cultures that value tradition and stability may be more resistant to change. Employees may be more likely to cling to “the way things have always been done” and resist new initiatives.
  2. Adaptability: On the other hand, cultures that value innovation and flexibility may be more adaptable to change. Employees in these cultures may be more willing to try new approaches and adapt to new circumstances.
  3. Communication: The culture of an organisation can influence how change is communicated. In cultures that value transparency and openness, leaders may be more likely to communicate openly about the reasons for the change and the impact it will have.
  4. Participation: In cultures that value collaboration and inclusivity, employees may be more likely to be involved in the change process, which can increase buy-in and reduce resistance.
  5. Leadership: The leadership style that is prevalent in a culture can also affect change management. Transformational leaders who inspire and motivate their followers can often drive change more effectively.
  6. Trust: If the culture has fostered a high level of trust, employees are more likely to support change initiatives because they trust that the decisions being made are in the best interest of the organisation and its employees.
  7. Learning orientation: Cultures that value learning and development may be more open to change, viewing it as an opportunity to learn and grow.

In order to manage change effectively, it is important to understand the culture of the organisation and to tailor change management strategies to fit that culture. This might involve addressing potential sources of resistance, leveraging cultural strengths, and working to shift the culture in ways that will support the desired change.

Take away summary

  1. Concept of culture: Culture is a broad concept that includes shared beliefs and values, traditions and rituals, language, arts and literature, social structure and institutions, material culture, norms and laws, and cultural evolution and change.
  2. Culture and mental disorders: Culture can influence the perception, expression, stigma, and coping mechanisms of mental disorders. It can also lead to diagnostic bias and unique cultural idioms of distress.
  3. Culture in mental health services: Culture can influence access to care, treatment preferences, the therapeutic relationship, cultural competence, family and community involvement, prevention and outreach, and policy and advocacy in mental health services.
  4. Organisational culture: Culture can influence organisational culture, affecting job satisfaction, productivity, retention, innovation, and teamwork. Negative aspects of organisational culture can lead to stress, burnout, low morale, ethical issues, and lack of innovation.
  5. Organisational risk management: Culture can influence risk perception and tolerance, risk identification and assessment, risk response, compliance and ethics, learning from mistakes, and the development of a risk culture.
  6. Teamwork: Culture can influence teamwork through shared values and goals, communication norms, conflict resolution, decision-making processes, trust and psychological safety, diversity and inclusion, and performance standards.
  7. Cultural biases: Cultural biases often operate at an unconscious level, and individuals may not be aware of them due to normalisation, unconscious processing, defensive reactions, and lack of exposure.
  8. Managing biases: Implicit bias training can increase awareness of biases and change attitudes, but evidence is mixed on its long-term effectiveness in changing behaviour or reducing discrimination.
  9. Culture and change management: Culture can influence resistance to change, adaptability, communication, participation, leadership, trust, and learning orientation in change management.

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