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Cultural dimensions of children’s experience of their mentally ill parent

In culturally diverse societies such as Australia, the cultural norms that inform clinicians’ approaches to mental illness, and clients’ understanding of their illness, are often markedly divergent. While cultural difference is anever-present reality, mutual misunderstanding need not be. We commence our discussion with a case example involving a Chinese–Australian family.An examination of this case illustrates some of the cultural dimensions to understanding the situation of mentally ill parents and their children. Having identified these cultural variables, we discuss them at greater length.

Mrs X, a 30-year-old woman from the People’s Republic of China who had come to Australia with her husband and daughter 5 years earlier,was referred to a community mental health service by a general practitioner. Mrs X stated that she felt weak and suffered insomnia.

Her specific request was that she needed something to help her sleep and to overcome feeling ‘weak’. She initially did not identify any other outstanding issue, and expressly denied any other psychiatric symptomatology. Mrs X said her thinking was not self-denigratory, nor did she experience feelings of guilt. She had no history of mental illness. Her view of the future was that she would be able to regain hernormal ability to fulfil her domestic responsibilities and to attend her English classes once she began to sleep well again and overcame her ‘weakness’. Mrs X had stopped attending classes, struggled to get things done around the house and was not seeing friends as regularlyas was usual. In the third interview she mentioned that her 8-year-olddaughter had become very disobedient and that, feeling unable todiscipline her adequately, was making plans to send her to live with her(the daughter’s) maternal grandmother in China.

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