Ethno-cultural variations in the experience and meaning of mental illness and treatment: implications for access and utilization

Transcult Psychiatry. 2010 Apr;47(2):224-51. doi: 10.1177/1363461510368906.


We conducted a study to investigate how understandings of mental illness and responses to mental health services vary along ethno-racial lines. Participants were 25 African American, Latino, and Euro-American inner-city residents in Hartford Connecticut diagnosed with severe mental illness and currently enrolled in a larger study of a community mental health center. Data were collected through 18 months of ethnographic work in the community. Overall, Euro-Americans participants were most aligned with professional disease-oriented perspectives on severe mental illness and sought the advice and counsel of mental health professionals. African-American and Latino participants emphasized non-biomedical interpretations of behavioral, emotional, and cognitive problems and were critical of mental health services. Participants across the sample expressed expectations and experiences of psychiatric stigma. Although Euro-Americans were aware of the risk of social rejection because of mental illness, psychiatric stigma did not form a core focus of their narrative accounts. By contrast, stigma was a prominent theme in the narrative accounts of African Americans, for whom severe mental illness was considered to constitute private "family business." For Latino participants, the cultural category of nervios appeared to hold little stigma, whereas psychiatric clinical labels were potentially very socially damaging. Our findings provide further empirical support for differences in symptom interpretation and definitions of illness among persons from diverse ethno-racial backgrounds. First-person perspectives on contemporary mental health discourses and practices hold implications for differential acceptability of mental health care that may inform variations in access and utilization of services in diverse populations.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • African Americans / psychology*
  • Cross-Cultural Comparison*
  • Emigrants and Immigrants / psychology*
  • Female
  • Health Services Accessibility*
  • Hispanic or Latino / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / diagnosis
  • Mental Disorders / ethnology*
  • Mental Disorders / therapy
  • Mental Health Services / statistics & numerical data*
  • Middle Aged
  • Narration
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care / ethnology
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care / psychology
  • Prejudice
  • Psychotherapy
  • Psychotropic Drugs / therapeutic use
  • Social Values / ethnology
  • Urban Population*
  • Utilization Review
  • Whites / psychology*


  • Psychotropic Drugs