According to the Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) curriculum, culture shapes people’s attitudes, beliefs and behaviors when it comes to wellbeing, including mental health. For example, some people may want their family to be part of their mental health decisions, and some people may not. In many ways, every encounter you have is likely a cross-cultural one, as everyone is a member of multiple cultural groups based on a variety of factors such as race, ethnicity, faith, region, type of work, level of education, physical ability or disability status and so much more.
As a First Aider, it’s important to do your homework and understand how to create a culturally safe environment when helping children and youth from cultural backgrounds different from your own to create trust. When providing Mental Health First Aid to a young person, remember these three ways to create a culturally safe environment:
- Respect the culture of the community by using appropriate language and behavior.
- Never do anything that causes the person to feel shame.
- Support the person’s right to make decisions about seeking culturally based care.
Let’s dive into a few important cultural considerations to keep in mind when communicating with and providing support to children and youth from diverse backgrounds.
- Learn about the young person’s culture and concept of mental illness.
- For example, some people may want help from a chaplain, spiritual leader, or healer vs. a medical doctor. To learn about their preferences, ask questions about what the young person needs rather than acting based on what you think they need.
- Know what is acceptable, and what is not, in a young person’s culture.
- Depending on a person’s culture, their experiences, beliefs and behaviors may be misdiagnosed or mislabeled as mental illness by those who don’t understand the cultural context.
- Know what culturally appropriate communication is.
- Did you know that in some communities, eye contact can be viewed as a way of reprimanding someone rather than a sign of respect? In others, it may be seen as inappropriate for a young person to speak alone with an adult of the opposite sex – even if they are seeking support for a mental health challenge. Be aware of these possibilities and make sure the young person’s sense of safety and comfort is at the forefront of your mind.
- Do not shame the young person, their family or community.
- The concept of shame can be a barrier to seeking help or even sharing honestly about their circumstances. Be mindful of the language and behaviors you use and ask yourself, “Could my words and actions be triggering any feelings of shame for this person? Can I adjust my approach to make them feel safer and more understood?” One way to help them feel comfortable is to ask questions about what has happened to the young person rather than what is wrong with them.
- Use community and family supports.
- Informal supports such as a young person’s social networks, including family members, respected elders or even a community liaison, can be vital, especially if access to professional services is limited. Encourage the young person to build their network and tap into these social supports when needed.
- Be mindful of young people who are immigrants and refugees.
- A young person who has moved to the United States from abroad may have experienced trauma in their country of origin, perhaps because of war, poverty, oppressive government or separation from family members. Young people in immigrant and refugee families are also at increased risk of experiencing racial discrimination; language barriers; lack of access to formal services and supports and more. If you’re from a community with a large migrant or refugee population, consider reading up on what culturally appropriate services are available for young people in your area.
- Be aware of the possibility of a history of abuse or neglect.
- In any culture, abuse is a significant risk factor for developing mental health challenges. It can often cause young people to be entirely disengaged and distrustful of adults, or alternatively, seek inappropriate attachment and affection from adults. When helping a young person with this kind of history, it’s important to:
- • Be predictable and consistent with your interactions.
- • Be firm about what your role as a First Aider is and the limitations of your role (e.g., First Aiders DO NOT diagnose or treat).
- • Be honest and upfront about it if you are going to refer the youth to other services.
Let them know that you believe what they’ve told you; what they’re sharing is important and you want to help; there are adults who can be trusted and there are ways to feel and be safe.
With these tips on communicating with children and youth from diverse cultural backgrounds, you can meet young people where they are and help #BeTheDifference in their recovery journey.
YMHFA is designed to teach parents, family members, caregivers, teachers, school staff, peers, neighbors, health and human services workers and other caring citizens how to help an adolescent (age 12-18) who may be experiencing a mental health or substance use challenge or crisis. Sign up for a YMHFA course, which is tailored to adults who regularly interact with young people, and check out these related blogs for more information.
Mental Health First Aid. (2020). Mental Health First Aid USA for adults assisting children and youth. National Council for Mental Wellbeing.
Mental Health First Aid. (2020). Mental Health First Aid USA for adults assisting adults. National Council for Mental Wellbeing.