The role of culture in mental health

Good therapy is more than psychology, says June Chu '95. Good therapy also derives from an understanding of culture and sociology.

Chu is a PhD candidate in psychology at the U/CA-Davis and works at its National Research Center on Asian American Mental Health (NRCAAMH). She says that Asians tend to use mental health services "only at crisis points" and have a low return rate. "Our center is focused on educating the community about the benefits of ethnic-specific services (ESS): tailoring therapy sessions to the needs of individual clients as a function of what they bring to the session," she explains.

Tailoring therapy to Asian Americans is largely a cultural task. For example, white Americans esteem individualism and in therapy are counseled to "be your own person." But Asian Americans are collectivistic and family oriented, Chu says: "Separation from that unit is not 'natural.' Traditionally, therapy has been Eurocentric, neglecting the fact that telling Asians to be 'individuals' may not be the best way to promote good mental health." Thus, therapists sensitive to their patients' cultural backgrounds provide more successful life skills. Additionally, simply designing mental health clinics more thoughtfully-staffing them with bi- or multilingual Asian Americans and decorating waiting areas in Asian themes-could facilitate reaching the Asian community.

Academically, Chu's main focus is discrimination. She says that psychology research has not addressed how Asian Americans perceive discriminatory events: Are those who identify with their ethnicity more likely to perceive discrimination accurately? Are assimilated individuals less likey to consider certain events discriminatory? How might certain perceptions of discriminatory events impact self-esteem?

Chu also is interested in children's conceptions of ethnic identity: "Ethnic identity was difficult for me to navigate as a child. Every single one of my Asian American friends was taunted with 'ching chong' sounds when they were children. I want to see what can be done to reconcile the two cultures that Asian American kids grow up in. I want to discover what creates resiliency and pride in our ethnic heritage-why some kids are ethnically identified, and why others prefer to completely assimilate into the majority culture."

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