Social workers and cultural influences on mental health

Social workers have clients from diverse cultures and must develop cultural competence to provide an effective and equitable service. Self-awareness and cultural sensitivity can help to overcome barriers and ensure that clients receive the treatment they need. There are many ways for social workers to improve mental health care, such as by advocating for clients.

Social workers work to improve mental health and overall wellbeing in society. They see clients and treat and prevent mental, emotional and behavioral issues. They provide therapy for individuals, families and groups. Some of the conditions they address include borderline personality disorder, anxiety, depression and substance abuse disorders. For example, they can help patients address drug addiction and organize mental health services to support them. They can advise and support in finding employment and housing. 

Social workers who want to advance their careers can take Cleveland State University’s

online MSW advanced standing. This is the shortest pathway in Ohio for degree holders in social work. The program is part-time or full-time. Coursework is 100% online with 500 field practicum hours in the student’s community. 

Culture includes the ideas, customs and social behavior of different groups in society. An individual’s culture can influence their beliefs, values and behavior. Every person and culture is different, and each journey to recovery is unique. Cultural competence is the capability to relate well to people from different groups and backgrounds. It is fundamental in social work practice to ensure that all members of society receive equitable treatment and care. Social workers must be aware of the different dimensions that influence a person’s identity, which can include:

  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Language
  • Sexual orientation
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Class/socioeconomic status
  • Education
  • Religious/spiritual orientation

The viewpoint of an Afro-Caribbean American social worker

Janice Hawkins is an Afro-Caribbean American social worker. Her upbringing taught her not to confide in others or tell outsiders about emotional distress. Most women from her background would rather sort out their own problems. 

Working as a social worker for a city agency, she was asked to help with a teenage mother. The Black American coordinator and the Latino social worker could not understand the young woman and thought that something was wrong with her. They said that she was unable to follow instructions. When Hawkins met her, she recognized her as the youngest household member whose grandmother would make decisions for her. In her Guyanese culture, she was still considered a child, which is how she behaved. In her culture, problems are only discussed with family or very close friends. Talking about personal problems to a stranger was seen as weak and betraying the family. In this case, a lack of knowledge of a client’s culture and family dynamics was harming the process with a client seen as resistant when their worldview was not recognized. 

Hawkins believes that even with much multicultural training, racism can still be present unconsciously. Being self-aware is vital, with social workers identifying any bias they might have. African Americans are very unsure about accessing mental health services. Today, non-Hispanic whites are about 90% of mental health providers in the US. More diversity within the mental health field would increase cultural understanding of clients. It would also be beneficial to address racism and discrimination early in training programs.

Social workers and the part they play

Every culture perceives mental health differently. It can affect whether or not someone looks for help, the kind of help they seek, and the support they have around them. Many people regard mental illness as a weakness and something that should be hidden. This is a barrier to talking openly and asking for help. Cultural factors can result in different family and community support levels. Stigma around mental illness can mean that some people look for mental health treatment independently. 

Social workers do not need to understand all aspects of every culture. Instead, they need to be open to new cultural ideas, ask questions, listen and be willing to learn. This makes it easier to assist clients in dealing with cultural barriers and connecting them with essential resources. Social workers should get to know the client, and not rush meetings and interventions. They should see the client and be ready to learn. It is important not to make assumptions about the client, but to see them as the expert of their experience. 

There are many immigrants living in the US today with diverse cultural backgrounds. Research has shown that ethnic minorities in the US receive mental health treatment the least and will wait until they are very ill before looking. Social workers can support vulnerable immigrant communities so that they can access help in overcoming social and economic challenges. 

There are numerous ways that social workers can improve their cultural competence. They can advocate for their clients and give them what they need to self-advocate. Social workers can consider their own cultural backgrounds and be conscious of any biases and assumptions they have. This self-awareness can inform their practice and influence their relationships with clients. They can have humility, admit mistakes and take corrective action. 

Social workers are certain to experience beliefs and traditions they are not familiar with. With the right approach, they can still help clients reach the needed services. Research has shown that cultural barriers, such as having little English language proficiency and not understanding the healthcare system, can result in poor health outcomes for immigrants. By understanding cultural differences, social workers can overcome barriers and ensure that services are accessed. Social workers can assist with numerous issues, such as mental and behavioral health, employer exploitation, family separation, and discrimination because of race, gender identification and sexual orientation. 


Social workers must have cultural competence so that their clients receive the right service. By integrating cultural knowledge with skills, they can improve relationships with clients and help them to achieve better mental health outcomes. Social workers will encounter unfamiliar cultures, but by listening to the client and understanding their position, they can adapt to meet the client’s needs.