10 ways to be culturally aware in support of World Mental Health Day 10 October 2023

Malaysia’s population in the first quarter 2023 was estimated at 33.2 million, increased by 1.6 per cent as compared to first quarter 2022 (32.6 million) according to department of statistics Malaysia (DOSM). The total population comprised 30.4 million (91.7%) Citizens and 2.8 million (8.3%) Non-Citizens. This increase was contributed by the positive natural increase of Citizens and higher Non-Citizen population. Three states with the highest population in the first quarter 2023 were Selangor (21.7%) followed by Johor (12.3%) and Sabah (10.4%).

According to data from the Health Ministry, Johor recorded a high number of people with mental health problems at 40 %, followed by Labuan (33%), Sabah (23%), Negeri Sembilan (18%), and Perlis (16%). Selangor and Melaka both recorded 15%, while Pahang (13%) and Perak (12%) recorded. Less than 10% of those screened in Penang, Sarawak, Kedah, Terengganu had mental health problems, while only 1% of those screened in Kelantan experienced depression and anxiety.

According to an article in The Star dated March 8, 2023, the residents of Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya were found to be the most depressed in Malaysia. While this study involved screening 336,900 residents nationwide, does this data provide a comprehensive overview?

Hence, an integrated mental health policy is needed across various sectors, including health, education, employment, and social services. Efforts to establish coordination and collaboration among agencies can lead to a more comprehensive and holistic approach to mental health promotion, prevention, and treatment.

By being culturally aware, increasing awareness, reducing stigma, and ensuring accessible and quality mental health services, Malaysia can move towards a society that supports the well-being of all its citizens in line with World Mental Health Day’s theme for 2023, set by the World Foundation of Mental Health, is ‘Mental health is a universal human right’.  

Understanding that every person has a culture – the many customs and beliefs that shape our perspectives and create a lens through which we see others. We are our own experts in the cultural experiences that influence our lives. Yet, when we try to communicate with people from other cultures, we need to ask ourselves whether or not we are doing so in an effective and appropriate manner. It is impossible to become an expert in every culture. Even so, we can become more culturally aware, understand our own cultural influences, and respect and value the differences of other individuals and groups. If we strive to learn from and about those with whom we interact, we will naturally become more culturally informed.

“People often consider eye contact as a sign of honesty and interest in conversation, but some cultures view direct eye contact as a sign of disrespect.”

In our mental health response program, we use these 10 ways from the American Psychological Association to be more culturally aware:

  1. Think beyond race and ethnicity.

Opportunities to expand our cultural understanding exist everywhere, especially when we consider culture beyond its association with ethnicity. Culture is central to our identity and, as such, may be seen or unseen by others. Culture is shaped by personal experiences that may include: ethnic and racial identity; religion; age; educational level; body size; heritage and family tradition; physical and cognitive abilities; sexual orientation; gender identity; and geographic and socioeconomic experiences.

  1. Think outside your own box.

We are influenced by our own values, beliefs, biases and life experiences. We need to carefully consider how our perspectives affect our understanding of other cultures and avoid making assumptions about others based on our own experiences. Becoming culturally aware starts with recognizing the limitations of our own cultural knowledge.

  1. Use language that evokes images of people actively engaged in life

When working with people with disabilities. Avoid phrases that suggest helplessness or tragedy. For example, say “Bob uses a wheelchair” instead of “Bob is in a wheelchair.”

  1. Listen carefully.

Hearing is not necessarily listening. Our own perceptions, biases and expectations sometimes make it difficult to really listen to and comprehend both overt and covert messages. Be mindful to focus on and identify the information being conveyed.

  1. Learn by asking.

People feel respected when others are genuinely interested in learning about their views and perspectives. Consider incorporating questions into conversations that demonstrate your desire to learn more about others’ cultural experiences. Use simple or open-ended questions that encourage dialogue, such as:

“What do you think?”

“How can I be of assistance to you?”

“What information is important for me to know about you and your culture?”

“If I was a member of your community, how would I most likely react to/cope with this situation?”

  1. Exchange stories.

We encourage responders, survivors and mental health advocates to share their personal healing story. Storytelling and personal sharing are important communication techniques that transcend most cultures. Consider sharing relevant personal stories as a way to start a conversation or build rapport.

  1. Tune in to non-verbal behaviors.

Sometimes, behaviours can provide more details about how someone is reacting to a situation than what they may be comfortable saying. It is important to recognize welcoming behaviours as well as those that may be defensive so that you can adjust your approach accordingly. Similarly, be aware of your own body language. Does standing while others are sitting demonstrate authority, or aggressiveness?

  1. Respect language preferences.

Before approaching a new group of people, consider whether the materials you have to offer or your presentation need to be adapted to ensure that you are understood. In some cases, it might be necessary to translate materials or invite an interpreter to the presentation. Other times, such as when communicating with young children, simply adjusting your vocabulary might suffice.

  1. Avoid insensitive comments.

In group contexts, individuals sometimes make insensitive and hurtful comments about others (e.g., jokes, slurs, etc.). Do not reinforce this behaviour. If you are comfortable doing so, make known your discomfort with what has been said and ask that no more insensitive comments be made.

  1. Honor flexibility in people’s self-identification.

We may make assumptions about people’s cultural identity while they may have an entirely different perception of themselves. Listen for information about self-perception. For example, do they consider themselves as having a spouse or a life partner? People may identify with a particular aspect of their diversity at different times (e.g., being a lesbian may be very salient in some circumstances but not in others)

Culture can influence the manner in which individuals express their emotions. To best communicate with people in any community, it is important that you be open to differences in how people express their feelings. Ask community leaders to help you understand any differences and to identify effective ways to communicate and/or provide support. For example, individuals in some cultures may be uncomfortable with any type of confrontation and, as a result, may go along with an idea you present when in reality they do not support it.

What is …

  • Culture? The belief systems and value orientations that influence customs, norms, practices and social institutions, including psychological processes. All individuals are cultural beings and have a cultural, ethnic and racial heritage.
  • Race? The category to which others assign individuals on the basis of physical characteristics such as skin colour or hair type. These characteristics can be the basis of generalizations and/or stereotypes.
  • Ethnicity? The acceptance of the group mores and practices of one’s culture of origin, and the concomitant sense of belonging.
  • Multiculturalism and Diversity? Terms that have been used interchangeably to include aspects of identity stemming from gender, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomic status or age.
  • Multiculturalism? A broad scope of dimensions of race, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation, gender, age, disability, class status, education, religious/spiritual orientation and other cultural dimensions, all of which are critical aspects of an individual’s identity.
  • Diversity? An individual’s social identity, including age, sexual orientation, physical disability, socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, workplace role/position, religious/spiritual orientation and work/family concerns.

You can also take a Mental Health Response course. Drona Wellness offers tailored courses understanding needs of Malaysian population and can help you better understand your community and peers in responding to mental health. Get trained today and #BeAResponder for those around you. Our programs are HRDC claimable.