Cultural diversity poses many interesting questions to the study of mental health. The language, and to a large extent the experience, of mental health can vary tremendously across cultures. The experience of immigration can lead to acculturative stress and discrimination, and also leads to new social patterns and networks. One recent study suggests that retaining fluency in one’s family’s culture of origin may provide protective effects for mental health (Harada et al 2011).
The study used the large scale Honolulu-Asia Aging Study, performing a cross-sectional analysis of over 3,000 Japanese American men living in Hawai’i between the ages of 71-93. The researchers examined demographic, medical, dietary, and psychological information, and included a “cultural assimilation scale” of 8 items including religion, birthplace, use of the Japanese language, and years of school in Japan. The researchers scored all of the subjects and separated them into thirds, and compared depressive symptoms between the groups while controlling for other health, social, and economic factors. They found that “those who were most culturally Japanese had lower odds for prevalent depressive symptoms” (Harada et al 2001, 6), having a 28% lower likelihood of clinically meaningful depressive symptoms.
The authors had many hypotheses for this. One was that “more Japanese” participants may have masked their symptoms, or experienced underlying depression differently. They also suggested that those who identify has Japanese might have greater social resources, such as extended family or a larger peer group of individuals with a similar cultural identity. Alternately, it may reflect the lower prevalence of depressive symptoms in Japan than in the United States.
Other research has suggested that individuals who are “bicultural,” or who are culturally fluent in both their current country of residents and of their family’s culture of origin, may have better overall psychological health than their peers who are more wholly integrated, or alternately less acculturated, into the current national culture. The authors acknowledge that the term “assimilation” that they use is controversial; indeed, it may be less appropriate in this study as the individuals who are “most Japanese” are not necessarily “less American.” The authors acknowledge that it may be difficult to generalize from this study as, in Hawai’i, Japanese Americans are more numerous, established, and integrated than in other parts of the US. At the same time, the homogenous nature of their sample enabled the researchers to focus more specifically on the relationship between cultural identity and depressive symptoms. This research suggests that the social and cultural resources of first and second generation immigrants may offer mental health benefits to minority older adults.
Harada N, Takeshita J, Ahmed I, Chen R, Petrovich H, Ross GW, and Masaki K, (2011). Does Cultural Assimilation Influence Prevalence and Presentation of Depressive Symptoms in Older Japanese American Men? The Honolulu Aging Study. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, epub ahead of print. doi: 10.1097/JGP.0b013e3182107e3b