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How Do Ethnic Differences Affect Recovery?

Like a quilt rich in colors, textures, and patterns, the United States is a nation made up of many ethnic, racial, religious, and cultural groups. The ethnic diversity or differences in our nation lends strength and uniqueness to the fabric of our society, but it also leads to a number of unique impacts on the recovery process.

Ethnicity Defined

What is an ethnic group? An ethnic group relates to a religious, racial, national, or cultural group. A cultural group is defined as a people with common origins, customs, and styles of living. The group has a sense of identity and a shared language. Their shared history and experiences shape the cultural groups’ values, goals, experiences, beliefs, perceptions, and behaviors from birth until death (Randall-David, 1989). This definition includes both ethnic and religious minorities.

It is easy to see that there are a great many of people in this country who have different beliefs, values, religions, sexual orientations, genders, or family systems than what is traditionally referred to as the “majority.” It is safe to say that in any given group if the various individuals who are considered the “minority” were added up, they would outnumber the individuals who are traditionally viewed as the majority.

People from various backgrounds and culture can experience additional stressors that may include: frustration (continuing discrimination, rejection, poverty, and pressure of economic instability), health issues (high rates of heart disease, certain kinds of cancer, diabetes, and acquired immune deficiency syndrome are found in some groups), cultural shock (individuals who have not been in the United States very long), isolation (lack of social support and language barriers), and stress and depression (adapting to the societal rules and norms developed by the “majority” groups).

It is often important to people of all ethnic groups in recovery to re-establish or maintain a connection with their culture. Different cultures and groups of people have values that are unique to that group and vary from culture to culture. A value is a quality, standard, or principle that a person feels is worthwhile. Values, viewpoints, customs, beliefs, and behaviors can vary from culture-to-culture, group-to-group, or individual-to-individual and can include for instance views on psychiatric and substance disorders.

Ethnic Differences and Recovery

Mental health disorders, alcoholism, and addiction are considered more acceptable within some groups or cultures than others. Some other groups consider these illnesses less acceptable. Additionally, attitudes on seeking counseling services also vary between groups. Seeking help outside the family or talking to others about problems may be considered shameful and disrespectful to the entire family. Some groups consider it “hip” to begin therapy. They also believe not having a therapist indicates something is wrong and a sign of denial.

Opinions on self-reliance also vary from cultures, groups, and individuals. Relying on oneself and being in control may be of value. Other groups place importance in relying on the family. Some groups gain guidance from other elders. Still others rely on a particular person like the father. Some cultures distribute the discipline and reliance throughout the family members without placing responsibility on any one individual.

People’s thoughts on competition also vary tremendously. Winning once and allowing others to win may be respected in some cultures, while strong competition and winning every time is valued in others.

Beliefs about family symptoms vary as well. Some groups appreciate individuality with emphasis on the individual’s right to freedom, autonomy, and respect. Other groups place emphasis first on the family. Everyone is only important as being a part of that family. Roles in the family may vary. Some are flexible, and others strongly believe decisions rest with the man in the family. Others believe the female is the head of the family. Some groups give great importance to the involvement of the elders in the guidance of the family, while others place elders in the less important role of the “baby-sitting” grandparents.

Another value, belief, or custom that varies across groups are ideas on illness and healing. Illness may be viewed as a result of bad conduct or evil thoughts. A person may be expected to take complete responsibility for their healing without the help of others.

Views on communication also vary. Direct eye contact may be valued for some, while others view direct eye contact as threatening or a sign of disrespect. Some groups place little value on the spoken word and more importance on body language and nonverbal communication, Other people distrust a person who speaks directly and firmly because they value speaking softly and slowly. Still others may be cautious of a person who speaks softly or slowly. Some cultures express themselves with action-oriented expressions using more gestures and body language, while in other groups waving arms is considered rude. Touching a person in some cultures is considered inappropriate and is forbidden, while in others it is considered a sign of friendship and warmth.

All of these ethnic and cultural differences affect how a person or groups of people recovery from mental health and substance abuse, meaning we have to be mindful of these differences when offering or suggesting help for those in recovery.

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