Playing the Psychologist: The Importance of Cultural Competence

posted by Dr. James G. Hood
Friday, May 28, 2010

Society has struggled throughout history to explain and manage individuals with  abnormal mental states, and as a result of society’s quest for understanding, three major explanations have developed: the supernatural, biological, and psychological. More recently, psychologists have argued that the combination of biological and psychological factors are the most likely causal factors of psychopathology (Barlow & Durand, 2005). Realizing that psychological disorders are caused by psychological and biological factors is important for the implementation of effective treatment; however, clinicians and researchers must also be aware of and sensitive to a particular individual’s culture in order to properly diagnose a psychological disorder. Additionally, cultural knowledge is necessary to off set the negative stigma that society may be attributing to a particular psychological disorder or psychological abnormalities in general.

Taking a step back and looking through a cultural perspective at the actions of a particular individual acting in his/her respective culture is extremely important. A culture deems what behaviors are normal (acceptable) in its own culture. What is normal in one culture, therefore, could be deemed completely unacceptable or could even be classified as a psychological disorder in another culture. A careful mental health practitioner would therefore be sure to understand the cultural nuances of a patient’s culture in order to avoid an inappropriate diagnose and respective treatment for a patient which could result in a patient being hurt rather than helped. For instance, a patient may develop symptoms of a particular mental disorder even though the initial diagnosis was incorrect because the patient could experience the self fulfilling prophecy.

After determining that a patient actually has a psychological disorder based on the guidelines for behavior in the patient’s particular culture, then a responsible mental health practitioner must be aware of society’s feelings toward that particular disorder and act accordingly. In the past, psychological disorders were viewed in a variety of negative ways that greatly marginalized or even physically inflicted harm on individuals with psychological disorders. For the most part, the negative perception of individuals with psychological disorders continues to this day.

The negative perception of psychological disorders is harsher towards individuals on the “extreme” end of the psychological spectrum. Pop culture points out and/or creates examples of schizophrenic or individuals with some sort of personality disorder that exhibit wild behaviors. These behaviors are often exaggerated for dramatic effect and cast in a clearly negative light.

Individuals in a different subset of psychological disorders, however, are often viewed as people with small problems that can easily be remedied. The show, Monk, depicts a detective with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. However, the detective’s disorder is not viewed as a detriment, but rather as an interesting quirk that provides comic relief and ingenious insight into his profession. Furthermore, with the rising popularity of pharmeceutical drugs, more and more people are taking medications for depression or certain anxiety disorders. More people being treated in a more public setting means that the norm for these treatments and their corresponding ailments is becoming more widely accepted. The new emphasis on the biological factors contributing to these disorders also helps alleviate the previous stigma because now the problem is more like a headache being treated with pills instead of an inexplicable problem of a particular individual’s human nature.

Knowing society’s particular viewpoint towards a specific mental malady is essential for beneficial treatment. By realizing society’s perspective a mental health practitioner will realize the obstacles that a patient may be facing. The realization will allow the mental health practitioner to outline an effective coping strategy for the patient.

Cultural competence is something that a clinician and/or reseracher must posess in order to best help an individual suffering from a psychological disorder. Realizing the dual nature of the psychological disorder involving both psychological and biological factor is important, but the cultural perspective must be explored to find its definition of normal behaviors and to determine the positive and/or negative attributions given to each respective psychological disorder.

References

Barlow, D. & Durand, M. (2005). Abnormal Psychology. Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth.



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