The concept of self differs across cultures. Whether a culture has collective or individualist values has a significant bearing on how people conceive of themselves. In collective cultures, the concept of self or ‘I’ is more inclusive than that of Western cultures – there is an interdependent experience of being. The Western or individualist sense of self is more associated with an independent and bounded experience.
In most collective cultures, when people refer to ‘I’, they usually mean ‘we’, with the ‘self’ encompassing a variety of significant others leading to the collateral or unindividuated self. In many cultures, the collective self takes priority and is superior to the individual self. In some cultures (such as Japanese) a sense of ‘I-ness’ or ‘I want’ seldom exists. For example, Japanese and Korean peoples depend on each other to sense what the other person needs or wants (Mehraby, 2004). Social and situational issues are likely to play a more important role in mental illness for a person from a collective culture, whilst internal attributes will play a greater role for those from more individualistically-oriented cultures.
The example of depression demonstrates well how a sense of “self” impacts on expressions of mental health. In non-Western cultures, being depressed does not involve the existential elements of personal meaninglessness, worthlessness or suicidal ideation. The collective identity tends to shape and limit the experience to somatic or interpersonal domains (Marsella & Yamada, 2000). Andary et al. (2003) give an example of an Indian ‘Ayurvedic’ practitioner’s response to the news of a youth suicide when visiting Australia. He was surprised that a young person had committed suicide because of feelings of alienation and low self-esteem. He commented that he would expect an unmarried woman who became pregnant to commit suicide because of the shame it brought to her family but not a young person who was blameless. This example illustrates the impact of culture on suicidal behaviour and the variations in the meaning of suicide behaviour across cultures.
As a person moves into a new culture their values and concepts may change in order to fit into the new environment. However, the core values such as the concept of self does not change so easily. It is therefore important that clinicians do not assume a client has the same values as the host culture.