March 16, 2018

Social Work researchers find cultural gaps in mental health services

March 18 summit celebrates success of program to reduce stigma of mental illness in Asian men

The first time it happened, he was amazed. As social work researcher David Este, PhD, entered the room, the men spontaneously stood up and started clapping. “For me, the amazing piece of this project is how enthusiastic the men have been about the interventions that we have offered,” says Este.

Pictured above, David Este, PhD, and Social Work grad student Christa Sato will present research findings on reducing the stigma of mental health to leaders from Calgary's Asian communities at a summit at the University of Calgary. 

Mental health is an uncomfortable topic for many people and in some cultures it’s almost taboo to talk about it. So Este was unsure about how a research program aimed at reducing the stigma of mental illness among men in Calgary’s Asian communities would go over. “We provide certificates to participants who completed the intervention program. I’ll often come to the last session to give the men their certificates and every time I've arrived, they stood up and they clapped.”   

Summit shares research with Asian communities

This Saturday, March 18, the research team will present findings from the innovative research project to the communities they have been working with at the Strength In Unity (SIU) Summit, being held in the MacEwan Hall Ballroom. The SIU project features three research centres in Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary. The Calgary team includes Este and fellow Social Work researchers Alan McLuckie, PhD, and Daniel Lai, PhD, and grad student Christa Sato.

Sato says very little research has been done with men and mental health, and the study project has really provided insight into how Asian men view mental health and stigma.

“A lot of them equated mental illness to being mad, to being crazy,” says Sato. “They didn't really conceptualize it as affecting them. It was really hard at first to recruit men and help them understand that mental health issues can affect everyone. There was a lot of education that needed to be done in order to get people on board, wanting to participate.”

Men’s mental health linked to culture and identity

Sato adds that the study, which involved more than 500 men and youths, really showed that mental health is intimately tied to many other parts of an individual’s identity — including gender, culture, migration status, and men’s gender roles in families.  “A big takeaway for me was learning that mental illness is not just about the illness per se, but it's more holistic, and it intersects with different things.”

The anti-stigma intervention project was unique in that it enlisted participants to become active community mental health ambassadors, mobilizing their communities to reduce the stigma of mental illness. The goal was to remove stigma and encourage people to ask for help when they need it. As Este explains, “One of the key benefits was that they and their family members and hopefully other members of the community would feel more comfortable in utilizing the mental health services that are available in Calgary. If one doesn't have an understanding of mental illness and mental health, then you may be reluctant to use mental health services.”

Study shows cultural gaps in available mental health services

Sato says the study also identified cultural gaps in currently available mental health services. “A lot of the men might have known that there are mental health services available, but they didn't feel that it related to them, or that the service providers really understood mental health in the context of their cultural community.

“One of the things that was really prevalent was using spiritual guidance and spiritual leaders to help promote mental health. That was typically who they had gone to for support and guidance," she continues. "I think a lot of the services that are out there don't really integrate that spiritual component, whereas in our groups, that was a theme that came up every time. The fact that it is such a big part of who they are that this is a huge piece that has been missing from current service-providing organizations with respect to mental health.”