Addressing the stigma surrounding mental health among racial & ethnic minorities

Article by S. Hussain Ather

Graphic design by Amy Assabgui

We often think of mental illness as solely a disorder of our minds and free from the biases and prejudices that come into play when we interact with each other. But it’s been observed that people of lower socioeconomic status may be more prone to mental illness.1 For a country with a diverse population — around 30% of the population identifying as PoC (person of color)2 — differences in the distribution of mental illness across race or ethnicity can never be ignored. Among the factors causing these disparities, there lie common themes of stigma and shame, intertwined in identity formation, further preventing individuals from seeking help.

Disparities in mental illness incidence and symptomatology

Health administrative databases in Ontario do not collect data on race or ethnicity as regularly as they could. However, efforts have been made to study how mental health disparities exist between individuals based on race. By identifying Chinese and South Asian surnames from various sources of data, Dr. Maria Chiu, Staff Scientist at Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES)3,4,5 observed a higher prevalence of mental illness among Chinese & South Asian ethnic groups. 

There are many reasons why members of these groups don’t seek treatment, including self-stigma, internalizing stigmatizing ideas widely endorsed by the public, feelings of shame, and views and/or beliefs of mental illness that could prevent individuals from seeking treatment such as the notion that mental illness can make one weak or “inferior” to others.6,7,8,9 There is also high levels of public stigma, or how an individual’s community perceives mental illness.10

Asian values & mental health

The traditional values that govern Asian families create the common stigma and shame surrounding mental illness within Asian communities. The family is a unit: each member defined in specific roles with a hierarchy coexisting in harmony. Mental illness can reflect poorly on this harmony. 

Asian societies also tend to be collectivist and emphasize the individual’s relationship to society as a whole, instead of the personal needs or desires of the individual. Group harmony, interdependence, and conformity rule above all, including one person’s needs to seek help. 

The black community & mental health

Higher rates of psychiatric disorders have been reported among black Canadians. As well 30% of black respondents in the 2020 Statistics Survey reported experiencing moderate to severe generalized anxiety disorder, whereas roughly 24% of white individuals did.11

Stigma and a fear of being judged within the black community — and consequently shamed and embarrassed – have also been cited as reasons individuals may not seek help.12,13 Shame has also been observed among other ethnic groups such as Latinos.13 

But what is it exactly about shame and stigma that keeps these individuals from reaching out for help? The answer may come down to how these illnesses change our perceived sense of identity. More than somatic/physiological changes in our body, they change the way we perceive ourselves and the ways others perceive us. Within those perceptions, shame and stigma lie. 

The roots of stigma & shame from a philosophical view

According to the cognitivist views of emotions, emotions are object-oriented.14 Emotions like shame serve as guiding forces towards objects or goals. Shame, through this lens, serves to diminish one’s status as a member of a group – or stigmatize that person within a group. 

For racial and ethnic minorities, group status is important as it relates to identity and broader collectivist ideals or how others in our respected community might judge that person. Being dependent on health services or medication may be a signal to others that we aren’t autonomous or strong, leading to these feelings of shame and stigma. 

Next steps in combating social stigma surrounding mental illness

Understanding how these psychological forces are rooted in group identity can lead to individuals making more informed decisions on their personal health and well-being. This can include joining support groups within the community or reducing self-stigma through self-compassion and self-care. The ways one may relate to those groups and the identity and status that come from them are part of the puzzle in combating shame and stigma.


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