‘Cultural empathy’ is a term I encountered last week in Radio National’s All in the Mind podcast, and it’s been occupying my thoughts ever since.
All in the Mind looks at topics to do with the mental realm. Ironically, I’ve been listening to it a lot on my precious walks to get outside and out of my head during lockdown.
The episode Why we need more Indigenous psychologists looks at Indigenous mental health and the ways it should be approached.
Importantly, it showed me a slice of how people with a different lived experience, culture and history experience the world in a way that’s starkly different to the mainstream view of ‘the norm’.
Without ‘cultural empathy’, or the ability to understand someone’s cultural experience, it’s very hard for us to respond to their needs.
There’s another term discussed here, one that’s the other end of the spectrum: “white fragility”. It’s the discomfort white people feel when confronted with the ramifications of their white privilege or the inherent racism of their situation. It comes out of many as a defensive reflex, an immediate shout of “I’m not racist” that blasts away the option to reflect, change or connect.
This episode explores the way westernised health practice, communications and psychology can fail to take these things into account, and so fail different cultural communities.
Psychologists trained in western and traditional medicine and psychology are trained to think some behaviours are negative and need to be changed. For example, some cultures act out their anger, sadness and depression, while others hold it in, bottle it up and build anxiety - which is 'better'? Some cultural norms mean that people don't realise their experience is 'depression' or that they can be helped. Many traditional therapists don't recognise inter-generational trauma.
Imagine being on the wrong end of this — seeking support for something as vital as your mental health and being met with disagreement or disbelief. For many, the need to explain the core of their being, from the start, every time, gets so exhausting they give up.
At Think HQ I’ve been lucky to work with SANE Australia, and this has made me think of the challenge they face in reaching and supporting different groups.
Cultural empathy helps, obviously, as it does across all forms of communication.
When applying cultural empathy to what we do, it's apparent that every one of us has a different experience. Factoring in cultural backgrounds plays a huge part in understanding some of these differences. In a State as diverse as Victoria, it’s a vital part of success. Making sure our communications are empathetic, compassionate and well-researched is uber important — or our efforts are pointless.