Cultural Variations in Healing: Mental Health Outreach

I recently had an opportunity to have a talk with criminologist and sociologist Dr. Kimya N. Dennis about the prevalence of mental health in racial and ethnic minority communities, the factors that influence mental health, and the lack of submission to treatment.

Seeking treatment for depression or any other mental illness should be seen as a strength; not a weakness. The standard perception of seeking treatment is shame, indignity, embarrassment, and feebleness. These ill-fitting characteristics keep people isolated, and strip them of the ability to seek professional help.

Dr. Dennis shares her point of view on how all people are shaped by sociocultural and institutional dynamics and are incapable of complete “objectivity” and “neutrality.”

Mental health impacts all people. All people experience mental health conditions themselves or know someone who has a diagnosable mental health condition. This includes more temporary conditions and more lasting conditions. The prevalence of diagnosable mental health conditions places emphasis on common conditions such as depression and anxiety.

One issue is in how “depression” and “anxiety” are defined and how they are distinguished from bouts of sadness, nervousness, or even personality traits. The significance of having a medical definition, and diagnosis of depression is central to encouraging people to seek professional care rather than self-diagnosis and self-medication. However, can such a definition and diagnosis be culturally conscious and clear of cultural biases? This is among the many factors instrumental in reducing the mistrust and stigma associated with medical professionals and health diagnoses.

The research and community outreach that Dr. Dennis does focuses on women and men of the immediate African diaspora; and addresses various correlates of mental health conditions and self-harming behaviors.

In addressing mental health among people of the immediate African diaspora, it is important to highlight the lacking, weak, or underutilized resources in African diaspora communities and organizations that service African diaspora communities. Mental health conditions such as depression increase in prevalence with a number of life stressors. All people experience life stressors in some form and to some degree but, unfortunately, power minorities such as women and certain racial and ethnic minorities have life stressors that are often greater in prevalence or there are fewer resources to decrease the impact of stressors.

Life stressors also consist of cultural dynamics that make it difficult to seek treatment. There are commonly held beliefs that certain types of struggles are characteristic of group identity; and seeking help is indicative of “lack of faith” or “lack of strength.” Families, friends, institutions such as places of worship, and neighborhoods have a substantive influence on group identity, individual identity, and whether people seek mental health treatment.

Dr. Dennis concludes that it takes a great deal of resources to buffer the effects of life stressors. A cyclical relationship is created between life experiences and life stressors, depressive outcomes, life outcomes such as family detachment and socioeconomic instability, and furthering downward spiral into depression.

I believe there are many misconceptions about what mental health treatment looks like and stigma continues to be a burden by weighing down the choices that people are willing to make in regards to seeking help. Going to therapy does not mean that someone is looking for a savior or to have someone make decisions for them in life, it’s about having someone who can guide you on your journey, without judging or shaming you for the decisions that you choose to make along the way. And can provide you with the support that you will need.

Support from friends and family is great, but the reality is that not everybody has that, and the flipside is that not everybody can give you the support you need when you are struggling with a serious life-threatening illness.

Your healing process belongs to you and you are allowed to dictate what is best for you and your journey. Your decision to heal should not bring forth anxiety, shame, or guilt. Seeking help can honestly save a life, and it should be seen as a fundamental decision to expand your growth and nurture your evolution.

I once had shame for being an African-American woman who wasn’t strong enough to carry her burdens, but I realized my true strength came from my ability to ask someone to help me carry the load that I couldn’t bear. Life is not about being the stronger person; it’s about being brave. It’s about having enough courage to narrate your story even when the world tries to dictate your path for you. In fact, seeking help is both strong and brave.

Learn more about Dr. Kimya N. Dennis and her research here.

Learn more about Minaa B here.

If you or someone you know needs encouragement in the midst of mental health struggles or life stressors visit for more resources.


If you — or someone you know — need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.