Depression through Chinese eyes: a window into public mental health in multicultural Australia (PhD Thesis Summary)

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Under-utilisation of mental health services is widespread globally and within Australia, especially among culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities. Improving service access is a priority, as is the need to deliver culturally competent services to the CALD communities. Having migrated to Australia in waves for approximately 150 years from China and South East Asia for various social, political and economic reasons, the Chinese population in Sydney is now the fastest growing non-English speaking ethnic group. There is a need to better understand the impact of culture on the emotional experiences of these Chinese in Australia. How do Chinese make sense of their depressive episodes? To address this question, this study explored the ways participants reach out for medical and/or non-medical help. Lay concepts of illness underpin these decisions and were thus unveiled. Mixed-method research design provided the opportunity to bring together multiple vantage points of investigation: population mental health, transcultural psychiatry and medical anthropology. A study combining quantitative survey and qualitative focus groups was undertaken in metropolitan Sydney. Narratives on symptoms, explanatory models and help-seeking strategies were articulated by focus group informants. Surveys covered demographics, symptom-recognition, previous depressive experiences and professional help sought. Depression measurement tools were cross-culturally validated. Self-ratings of ethnic identities and the Suinn-Lew Self-Identity Acculturation Scale were used to quantify Chinese participants’ acculturation level. This allowed comparisons between ‘low-acculturated’ Chinese’, ‘highly-acculturated’ Chinese and Australians. Survey results showed comparable levels of symptom-recognition in all subgroups. Focus group discussions provided rich data on informants’ help-seeking strategies. Highly acculturated Chinese closely resembled the Australians in many study variables, yet qualitative data suggested cultural gaps beyond language barriers in influencing service use. Participants believed that trustful relationships could work as the bridge to link services with those in need. The implications for Australia’s mental health policy include recognising the importance of rapport-building and the existence of cultural gaps. The study indicated professionals can benefit from acquiring information about the mental health beliefs both of individual clients and the wider ethnic communities in which they belong, and respecting the cultural differences between helper and helped as the first step towards cultural competency.
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Chan, Bibiana Chi Wing
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