Aim. This paper reports a study of (a) popular conceptions of mental illness throughout history, (b) how current social and cultural knowledge about mental illness influences Chinese-Australian patients’ and caregivers’ understanding of mental illness and the consequences of this for explaining and labelling patients’ problems.
Background. According to traditional Chinese cultural knowledge about health and illness, Chinese people believe that psychotic illness is the only type of mental illness, and that non-psychotic illness is a physical illness. Regarding patients’ problems as not being due to mental illness may result in delaying use of Western mental health services.
Methods. Data collection took place in 2001. Twenty-eight Chinese-Australian patients with mental illness and their caregivers were interviewed at home, drawing on Kleinman's explanatory model and studies of cultural transmission. Interviews were tape-recorded and transcribed, and analysed for plots and themes.
Findings. Chinese-Australians combined traditional knowledge with Western medical knowledge to develop their own labels for various kinds of mental disorders, including ‘mental illness’, ‘physical illness’, ‘normal problems of living’ and ‘psychological problems’. As they learnt more about Western conceptions of psychology and psychiatry, their understanding of some disorders changed. What was previously ascribed to non-mental disorders was often re-labelled as ‘mental illness’ or ‘psychological problems’.
Conclusion. Educational programmes aimed at introducing Chinese immigrants to counselling and other psychiatric services could be made more effective if designers gave greater consideration to Chinese understanding of mental illness.