Discrimination Eats Away At You – And Increases Your Chance Of Mental Illness

It’s a unique challenge: Diagnosing and treating immigrants with depression,
anxiety and other diseases of the mind. Columnist Margaret Wente talks to a
renowned British psychiatrist who’s come to Canada to help

November 19, 2008 at 3:37 AM EST

Canada’s growing population of immigrants and visible minorities face mental
health challenges that are often very different from those of other citizens.

Although many are at increased risk of mental illness, they have poorer access
to care, and their issues are often poorly understood. Dr. Kwame McKenzie
is a psychiatrist and researcher who specializes in redesigning mental health
services for visible minority groups. Last year he moved to Toronto from
London, England, to join the staff of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

This week Margaret Wente asked him to explain why understanding ethno-cultural
differences is so important for improving mental health care.

What Is Cross-cultural Psychiatry all About?

The work of cross-cultural psychiatry is to move to a more diverse view of
mental health services that allows individuals with different ways of looking
at the world to find their niche and find treatment. They won’t follow you unless
it makes sense to them.

What Drew You To Toronto?

Toronto is an exciting place for me, because it’s got such incredible diversity.
For anybody who’s interested in cross-cultural mental health, this is the
biggest laboratory in the world. You can compare groups and try to parcel out
what it is about the environment that makes some people more at risk of developing
mental illness.

What Are Some Of The Distinct Problems Experienced By Minority Groups?

They vary with the group. People from areas where there has been torture and
war are more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress issues. There’s a
huge Tamil population in Toronto that has very high rates of PTSD. Among South
Asian groups, depression is a problem among older South Asian women, and
alcohol misuse – probably caused by depression – is a problem among some South
Asian men. People of African and Afro-Caribbean origin will tell you that
racism and thwarted aspirations are a terrible problem that leads to depression,
suicide and psychosis.

Are Certain Groups More At Risk Of Developing Mental Illness Than Others?

Yes. In the U.K., for example, we’ve found that people of Afro-Caribbean origin
are significantly more likely to develop psychosis. But they delay getting
services. When they do, they are sicker and more likely to go into the hospital.

Your Key Message Is That We Can’t Treat People Effectively Unless We Understand Cultural Differences. Can You Give Us Some Eexamples?

A good one is depression. Most doctors here in Canada would probably say that
the most common symptom of depression is depressed thinking. But the experience
of depression in other cultures is very different. People don’t say ‘I feel
depressed.’ They say, ‘I feel tired. I’m thinking too much. I feel heavy.’
They don’t have the mind-body-split that we do. Women of South Asian origin
are only half as likely to have their depression noticed by their GP. They
have all the symptoms, but the GP doesn’t understand the cross-cultural presentation
of depression.

Do These Differences Also Have Implications For The Way We Deliver Services?

Yes. The Latino population is a good example. They’re very much into credibility,
heart and warmth. If you are a Latino looking into services, you want
a warm greeting. You don’t want a receptionist saying, ‘Here’s a form to fill
in.’ Then there’s the difference between individualist and collectivist societies.
A lot of people don’t want individual therapy. They want family therapy. Some
people from East Asian societies don’t want their son going off into a room
and talking to someone by himself.

Apart From The Obvious Issues Of Fairness And Equity, Why Should We Care?

If you don’t do the preventive stuff and don’t support these communities, you’re
going to spend more money on health care and poor work performance. It’s
a no-brainer.

Researchers Are Finding That Racism And Discrimination Can Literally Make You Sick. Please Explain.

Depression, anxiety and psychosis are all linked to discrimination. That discrimination
doesn’t have to be racial. It can be sex discrimination, or discrimination
based on sexual preference. Numerous studies have shown that people who have
been victims of racism are about twice as likely to suffer from depression.
Studies from the U.S. also show that the lower the level of racial respect,
the shorter the lifespan for both African-Americans and whites. Certain groups
also have a higher rate of social risk. They have jobs with low pay and high
levels of stress, poorer housing and more exposure to traumatic life events.
Some of the social factors in mental distress are also the things that lead
to high rates of gun crime.

In Other Words, You’re Saying That Mental Health Is Connected To Much Broader Social Issues?

That’s right. There was a beautiful piece of work done around 20 years ago
in Canada, called After the Door has been Opened, about how to improve mental
health services for immigrants. Only a handful of the recommendations had anything
to do directly with mental health. Most were about education, housing
and social supports.

What Are We learning About The Interaction Between Discrimination, Brain chemistry And Mental Distress?

Here’s one of the interesting things about discrimination. If you’ve been attacked
because of your race, you’re at increased risk of mental illness. But
your risk is higher even if you’ve experienced verbal abuse or stress. If you
haven’t been threatened or attacked, but you think that most employers discriminate,
you’re also at higher risk – about 60 or 70 per cent higher. Even if it hasn’t
happened to you, you’re worried that it might. Discrimination eats away
at you – and increases your chance of mental illness. The adrenalin is flowing
because something nasty has happened to you. Then you realize it’s unfair,
and your adrenalin increases again. If you can do something about it, your adrenalin
goes down. But if you can’t, it goes up again. You get three loads
of stress for the same problem. That’s why racism and discrimination are particularly
pernicious in the social realm.

Is There Any One Simple Thing We Could Do Right Now To Help Minority Groups Get Better Mental Health Care?

Even though 12 or 14 per cent of Canadians in Ontario don’t speak English,
there’s no real funding for interpretation services. It’s a big problem. When
people get ill, and especially when they become mentally distressed, they want
to speak their own language. If everybody’s supposed to get equal treatment,
then you have to have a provincewide language competency strategy. It’s very

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