Patient Awareness: Cultural Disparities in Health Care

By Jean Claude Sime, Mental Health Navigator


Cultural disparities in health care can be a barrier to quality care. Providing quality healthcare to everyone is more than just having access to doctors and services. Health care is most effective when it delivers services that meet the social, cultural and linguistic needs of patients.

Awareness of a patient’s culture helps promote trust and better health care and can lead to a higher acceptance of diagnoses and improve treatment adherence.

Why is Health Care Accessibility Important?

Mental wellness is universal. Behavioral and mental health issues are not specific to any age, culture or gender. Mental wellness is a human problem.

However, cultural disparities in health care can influence how people view mental health diagnosis, treatment or discussion. Language can also be a barrier to care.

For example, in the Haitian community, a mental health diagnosis is considered a “label” and not a good one. In the Black community, often a distrust of the health care industry is an obstacle. For men, asking for help may be considered a sign of weakness. These can impede addressing mental health issues.

Since mental health issues are often so personal, it can be difficult for people to relate to someone trying to help them who isn’t like them.

How Can Culturally Competent Care Benefit Mental Health?

A struggling family had been resistant to receiving help. The mother did not want to get her child tested, in part because of the negative perception that comes with a mental or behavioral health diagnosis.

As a Mental Health Navigator from her culture, I was able to work with her to understand the need for testing to improve things for her child. Being able to relate to her culturally allowed her to feel comfortable and to trust recommendations.

How can Cultural Disparities in Health Care impact treatment?

Awareness of a patient’s culture helps promote trust and better health care and can lead to a higher acceptance of diagnoses and treatment.

Someone’s culture can make a difference in care, impacting:

  • Heath care expectations
  • Who makes health care decisions
  • When and how patients seek care
  • How people view symptoms and diagnoses
  • Procedure and treatment preferences
  • Ability to follow recommendations and treatments.

Communication in another language can also be a barrier to care. Without the same understanding, patients may have a difficult time describing their symptoms and doctors may have difficulty describing the diagnoses and treatment.

Mental Health Navigators Address Cultural Disparities in Health Care

Children struggling in school, at home, or in the community who may benefit from the Navigator program are referred by the school staff with concern about a child’s mental and behavioral health.

Generally, children referred to the program struggle in multiple areas – behavior, attendance and grades – or a combination of these. They have not responded to typical school-based interventions for resolving these issues.

Students referred to the Mental Health Navigator program are usually those cases where the school and the family can’t “close the gap” between what the student needs and what school and family can do without outside assistance.

Mental Health Navigators can help close that gap because they have “lived experience.” That means they have navigated mental and behavioral health challenges, either themselves or within their families.

In addition, the team is made up of diverse individuals who often speak multiple languages. As a result, they are available to understand what students and families are going through.