Culture matters when it comes to mental health

Lim Su Lin

Modified 27 Jan 2019, 5:37 am

COMMENT | Have you ever stopped to think about what mental health means to you?

Chances are, if you possess a good command of the English language and your personal outlook is oriented towards Western values, your answer might reflect a particular way of thinking about mental health that is couched in Western norms.

These norms emphasise that good mental health is about an individual’s potential to build a sense of self-worth and find satisfaction in social roles, as well as enjoy meaningful relationships with others and contribute to society.

Conversely, when people are unable to cope with the normal stresses of life, unable to realise their own potential and cannot work productively nor contribute to their communities, they are said to be in a state of poor mental well-being (or the opposite of what the World Health Organisation defines as good mental health).

Perceptions of mental health

But in Malaysia, not everyone has worldviews that conform to these conventions.

To use a singular cliché, our society is a vast cultural melting pot made up of various groups. Though populations in urban cities may have adjusted to Western norms, many communities still actively uphold traditional cultural practices – for example, having a shared language and religion, or a common set of social beliefs, expectations, values and taboos.

These groups are likely to favour their own cultural norms as a template for making sense of mental health and mental illness. For instance, cultures that are strongly influenced by religious values and concepts may attribute mental illness to supernatural causes, rather than explanations grounded in medical pathology.

Asrenee Ab Razak's 2017 paper in the Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences shows that Malays, who follow the teachings of Islam, generally tend to associate mental illness with supernatural elements, such as possession by spirits and jinns.

The study, which explores Malay cultural understanding of mental illness, argues that religion and spirituality are important pathways for Malays in recognising different types of mental illnesses...

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