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Cultural Differences in Seeking Help for Substance Use Disorder & Mental Health

cultural difference written on chalkboard

The culture of a specific group often dictates which beliefs and behaviors they view as acceptable and which they do not. When an individual within that culture behaves in a way that conflicts with the general beliefs of the group, they may face ostracism or scorn.

Multiple studies agree cultural beliefs impact a person’s willingness to seek help for a substance use or mental health disorder. While some cultures view seeking psychiatric or addiction treatment services as acceptable, other cultures may view such services as unnecessary or undesirable.

This cultural aversion toward reaching out for help in overcoming mental or substance abuse problems is often more prevalent among communities of color.

Mental and Substance Use Disorders

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mental disorders, which include Substance Use Disorder (SUD), are “characterized by changes in mood, behavior, or thinking that result in any sort of impaired functioning.”

Ethnic and racial minorities in the U.S. face greater exposure to racism, discrimination, violence, and poverty, which increases the risk of mental illness and substance abuse.

Mental Health: Culture, Race, and Ethnicity: A Supplement to Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General discusses some ways in which cultural beliefs influence the willingness of individuals to seek treatment. These include:

  • Minority groups may hold a greater cultural stigma toward mental illness than majority cultures, seeing it as a weakness and as a personal family matter.
  • Cultural beliefs may prevent family members, friends, and others within the community from providing the support system important for successful recovery.
  • Language barriers or other communication problems may prevent an individual from accurately expressing symptoms and receiving appropriate care. The report also found cultural differences in the way people described their symptoms and whether they reported only physical symptoms or both emotional and physical symptoms.
  • Lack of communication may prevent the patient, and the cultural community, from understanding service and treatment options.
  • Authors of the report make an important point that “the cultures of the clinician and the service system influence diagnosis, treatment, and service delivery.” People of color may not trust clinicians to give them equal care and clinicians may harbor unconscious bias toward certain ethnic groups.
  • Minority groups may disproportionately lack health insurance, financial resources, and accessible mental health and addiction treatment providers.

Surveys support perceived disparity in treatment between minority groups and white Americans. The Commonwealth Fund Minority Health Survey found one in ten Americans felt they received inferior clinical treatment when receiving health care the previous year. Of those, 31 percent attributed poor treatment to their race.


The solution begins with education. Individuals of all cultural groups need to understand that mental illness and substance use disorder are diagnosable conditions that can be effectively treated. Public education campaigns, community and church presentations, and information sessions at treatment centers can reduce stigma, diffuse unfounded fear surrounding treatment and provide resources, including low-cost or sliding scale options, to those seeking help.

It is equally important that health providers receive training, both individually and organizationally, to overcome implicit bias.

Turning Point of Tampa has been offering Licensed Residential Treatment for Addiction, Eating Disorders and Dual Diagnosis in Tampa since 1987.

Turning Point of Tampa Addiction Treatment Tampa Florida

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