The Power of Shared Experience in Healthcare

For the most part of my adult life, I have struggled with my mental health. It makes it sound as if I have been an adult for a while, but I am only twenty. To be so young and feel the pitfalls of poor mental health can be daunting, isolating and very often frustrating. Having to deal with this, mostly on my own has led me to a few opinions on what helps and what does not. In particular, one of my most crucial discoveries was the importance of having a healthcare professional of the same culture. It can be very helpful because of their ability to understand who you are and the social and cultural structures which bind you. I’d like to delve into this more in this piece.

I first approached a medical professional about my mental health when I was in year 12. She said I had depression and possibly bipolar disorder. The thought was scary; I did not have the traditional or archetypal symptoms but I still felt sad and struggled with emotional regulation. The professional was Caucasian and from white middle class. As I was unloading to her about all the things that might have triggered my symptoms it became apparent, she was drawing on the generalisations about South Asian culture to relate and empathise with me. She asked questions such as, “are your parents strict?” “Because women are oppressed in your culture, do you find it hard to be around women in Australia?” Despite what my answers were to these questions, what was clear to me, was situations in my life which were contributing to my poor mental health were unique to my culture and upbringing. Having to explain it all to someone meant getting to the crux of the problem was arduous and delayed my getting help. 

This was not the first experience where someone ethnically diverse to me drew upon limited knowledge about what it is like to grow up as a South Asian immigrant to try and empathise with me. The most notable of such an experience was on a few occasions where the psychologist I had been regularly seeing, kept asking me if I was Indian, despite me explicitly mentioning that I was Sri Lankan many times. The conflation of all South Asian cultures can be detrimental during healthcare because there is a notion that all these people experience the same situations and upbringings. However, even subtle differences between cultures in the Indian subcontinent can wildly change one’s ability to relate to the world. 

The reason I share these anecdotes is to provide the contrasting experiences I’ve had with Caucasian professionals and the experience I currently have with my psychiatrist. She is Sri Lankan and her ability to direct the conversation in a positive way where I am able to provide a better understanding of my situation, in my opinion, has come down to our shared culture. When I cannot find the words to describe my situation in English, I can describe it in Sinhala and she understands. She understands what it is like to be an immigrant and does not generalise my upbringing to the wider South Asian community. It has been an absolute breath of fresh air to talk to someone where the context does not have to be explained. 

The result of such an experience has finally led to a diagnosis which fits my symptoms and makes sense to me. I am finally being properly medicated for my illness without wildly inaccurate speculations of my environment and condition. I am doing much better and my quality of life has improved immensely. I know that my experience may not be the same for everyone. But what I have found is the more people share their experiences on what has worked the better someone can make informed decisions. 

Written by one of our lovely writers at thEMPOWER. Illustrated by Upeksha Galappaththie.

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