• Helen Yohannes

Acculturation and Therapy

How to Bridge The Gap Between Needing Therapy and Teaching What Therapy to Family Members

Every year that passes, the stigmas surrounding mental health are slowly being knocked down. Our collective society continues to access information that may not have been as available before the modern age.


When I was a kid I saw people in my own community struggling mentally but I didn’t have the words to discuss with adults what exactly was going on. I live in a generation that does its best every day to advocate for their own personal mental health, however I can't ignore that bringing these conversations outside our own personal space can feel nerve-wracking and near impossible.


african family culture

"African Family Pose With Dinosaur" by mikecogh is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

This has been an important area of focus for me as a therapist.


The community I grew up in was full of children of war and everyone was dealing with the trauma of loss, survival, and lack of safety. Being born in Canada and not the country of my parent’s birth, I knew that listening was so important as the sacrifices made for me to live with a sense of peace needed to be heard and understood.


Many first-generation Canadians like myself could tell you how the role of culture has had a direct positive impact on the mental health of those in our communities. Many collective cultures believe in working together to deal with individual issues and mental health is one where the family may believe it is their duty to help the kids.


For those of us who have become accultured - which means we have adapted a new culture into our beliefs, values and customs - we may hit a roadblock of our own personal mental health struggle where we can see the value in talking to a therapist as opposed to our family. There is potential for one's family to have their own personal views of what this means. It could feel like your child has opened up "Pandora's box" of secrets to a total stranger. It could feel like betrayal. It could even feel like your child thinks that someone else could help them better than you can, which can translate to a lack of trust in their own family. Nonetheless, having a therapist is a personal decision. It may even require a different, strategic way of talking to family in order to ensure that culture is not lost in the pursuit of good mental health. You also want to get the best support across the board.


For anyone seeking therapy, it’s important to ensure that the therapist you find can best fit your needs and respect the identity that you bring with you into each session.


This includes the content of why you’re coming to therapy. I remember years ago talking about cultural pressures I had being in the field of mental health with a therapist. All eyes were on me as I was showing people in my own community that working in this space not only was my passion, but that mental health awareness was necessary. I remember feeling very misunderstood by the therapist.


As someone who is accultured, I battle between how honest I can be with fear of judgment.


There can be a very protective component for individuals who have adapted to multiple cultures. When one of the cultures feels threatened or judged by a third party, it can feel very isolating and upsetting. It’s unfair for anyone to feel like they need to repress or hide parts of themselves because they are unsure how it may show up, even in a therapy session.


When I was feeling misunderstood like this I went into defense mode; where it didn’t become about the pressure I was feeling anymore. So, how did I navigate it? I realized that there may be times where I have to teach components of my culture in order for those I was interacting with to have a closer understanding of limits and boundaries. This involves being open right from the start by providing generational background on your history, family dynamics, and asking the questions you may need answered by your therapist.


Many individuals who belong to more than one culture can attest to feeling like they need to choose one or the other, depending on what space they are in. We need to normalize acceptance of all parts of ourselves and that begins with each of us. Even when we battle within ourselves regarding our cultural identity, we should still come to that battle with self-compassion. It can feel heavy at times to do what’s best for yourself if there’s a chance that doing so would conflict with one or more cultural beliefs. Communicating your needs and boundaries may feel difficult, but can be done effectively with strategic practice.

Talking to family about going to therapy is another area that may need some strategic tips. When I began my schooling to become a psychotherapist, I realized through conversations in my community that what people see as therapy varies across the board. It’s important that before you provide details at your own comfort about why therapy is right for you, you may find it helpful to see what your family’s knowledge of therapy is. Even if the response is not positive, this is where you can communicate a different perspective for them.


This may include addressing some questions, such as:

  • If you need help, why don’t you just talk to us?

  • Why would you pay to talk to someone else?

  • You know we don’t talk about family problems outside this house, right?

  • Can we talk to your therapist?

As you can see, family involvement is very important for some cultures. This has many positives and can be very helpful in one’s mental health journey. Seeking independence can be hard for families to accept at times, especially when needing someone outside of the family for support feels like the best decision for one's self.


Reassuring family that this decision to seek therapy is one you are fully informed on, that it is not about being unable to talk to them about issues you may be dealing with; and that it removes pressure off their plate to feel like they must be the ones to help you can help bridge the gap between therapy and cultural norms. Supporting you as an individual may be the only need you require. As long as they trust you as a person you will thrive in balancing different cultural expectations. Don’t forget to make boundaries specific early on. Give some space if needed to have conversations so that you as well don’t feel pressured to say all you need at one time.


There is so much beauty in culture and sometimes it provides multiple perspectives on an issue and topic which can give space for different thoughts and perspectives. Finding neutral grounds sometimes may be needed, but nobody should feel like they need to pick one culture over another, especially when you're immersed in more than one.


Let’s celebrate all of who we are!


Do you have problems with cultural identity? Whether it’s being first gen Canadian or something else, you can book a session with Helen by contacting us at 1-613-877-4148 or email us at hello@limestone.clinic





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