Mental Health Across Cultures

If #culturematters, then mental health across cultures matters too. The US has marked May as Mental Health Awareness Month every year since 1949 when it was launched by the Mental Health America Organization. Worldwide, 150+ countries have observed Mental Health Awareness Day annually on October 10th since it was started by the World Health Organization in 1992.

By the Numbers

It is impossible to know how many people around the world deal with a mental health condition. This is because the numbers are often poorly measured and misunderstood. Yet, an estimated 971 million people worldwide live with a mental health condition. For example:

  • Depression affects 45 million people
  • Schizophrenia impacts 20 million people
  • Bipolar disorder affects 45 million people
  • Dementia sufferers number 50 million

However, on a global scale, so few people are able to access the mental health services that they need. According to the World Health Organization, in low and middle-income countries, more than 75% of people with mental, neurological, and substance use disorders receive no treatment for their condition at all. And less than 2% of the global median of government health expenditure goes to mental health.

Cultural Differences

The UK’s Medical Research Council has found that a staggering 80 to 90% of people experience negative stigma and discrimination as a result of mental health issues. It is clear that cultural differences, in addition to differences in income, gender, education, and employment, impact local experiences. For example, from a cultural perspective:

  • What does “friendship” look like and to whom do we feel comfortable turning? Without a support network that accepts the reality of mental health challenges, exclusion leads to isolation and a potential worsening of symptoms. Societies may experience higher rates of unemployment as people cannot perform at their best on the job when they are struggling outside of work. Organizations may therefore struggle to build viable talent pipelines.
  • How much support do we receive from family and community? In some cultures (e.g. Southeast Asia), the presence of mental health conditions in an individual or family can negatively impact marriage prospects. As a result, people often feel compelled to hide their challenges and/or may be unable to identify someone who understands their experience. This makes it even less likely that they will find the treatment they need. Even among high-income countries, however, there are significant differences in the percentage of people who seek help. According to The Commonwealth Fund, 41%–45% of British, Swiss, and Dutch adults reported not wanting to see a professional when experiencing emotional distress, whereas only 23 percent of U.S. adults reported the same.
  • How much control do we feel that we have over our circumstances? In cultures where external control dominates (e.g. many Eastern cultures), people believe that circumstances are influenced by religion, spirituality, government, luck, superstition, or any greater force beyond their control. They may be less likely to proactively seek help or be left to find it on their own. In internal control cultures (e.g. many Western cultures), where people believe that they have greater control over the circumstances and environment in which they live, it is more likely that people may seek treatment. In fact, according to the latest WHO Mental Health Atlas, 72% of the 194 Member States have a stand-alone policy or plan for mental health but only 57% have a standalone mental health law.
  • Is “health” considered only physical or does it include emotional symptoms as well? Within a culture, the language and concepts that people invent and use to describe health impact a culture’s reality. For example, Tahitians don’t have words for “grief” or “sorrow”. Some researchers have reasoned that this may be responsible for higher suicide rates as a lack of expressing this sadness also means people lack a way to alleviate it.

Making a Difference

Cultural Mixology founder Jamie Gelbtuch is an ambassador for the Athletes Against Anxiety and Depression Foundation (AAAD). In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, AAAD Founder China McCarney has released a new Mental Health Manual and Companion Journal to provide everyday resources that can improve mental health immediately and help with long-term sustained success.

For every purchase of the manual and/or journal that Cultural Mixology friends make during May 2021, we will donate 10% of your total purchase price to AAAD. Just send us a copy of your receipt via email or any of our social media below! AAAD uses 100% of the funds raised to create resources and provide free therapy for anyone suffering from a mental health battle. This is a small way that the Cultural Mixology community can #bethechange we want to see and raise awareness this month.


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