A Clinician's Guide to Polycultural Psychiatry

Harv Rev Psychiatry. 2021 Mar-Apr;29(2):159-168. doi: 10.1097/HRP.0000000000000284.


Patients and families each present unique microcultures, mixing and blending numerous broadly conceptualized cultural identity groups. Within individuals and families, cultural identities are experienced and enacted as complex matrices of intersecting identities that, to varying degrees, complement, assimilate, accommodate, or clash. In these patterns, individuals' relationships to cultures are not necessarily categorically distinct ("multicultural"). Instead, they are often "polycultural," defined as partial and plural; rather than interpreting different cultural traditions as separate and independent, they are, within the lives of individuals and families, better understood as systems that interact with and influence one another.Cultural identity groups extend beyond those traditionally considered by transcultural psychiatry-that is, beyond ethnic, racial, and language groups. They encompass (in alphabetical order) educational, ethnic, extended family, gender-oriented, generational, geographic, language and dialect, organizational, physical or psychiatric disability, political, professional, racial, religious, sect, social class, and vocational identity groups, among others. Simplistic assumptions and generalities about identity groups risk cultural stereotyping that may negatively bias clinical assessments. Therefore, practitioners striving for cultural sensitivity need to adopt nuanced strategies for approaching broad polycultural identity questions in clinical practice. Accordingly, this article suggests frameworks and strategies for (1) assessing and confronting one's own cultural preconceptions and prejudices, and (2) developing etic (objective quantitative data) and emic (insiders' experiential worldviews) perspectives pertinent to clinical anthropathology. Both etic and emic perspectives are necessary for polyculturally nuanced, respectful, comprehensive inquiries pertinent to patients' and family's health beliefs, psychiatric difficulties, and health practices. Supplementary material from the DSM-5 section on cultural formulation is adapted and discussed, along with the implications of polycultural psychiatry for education and training in psychiatry.

MeSH terms

  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
  • Ethnicity
  • Humans
  • Psychiatry*