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Cultural identity and mental health

What is cultural identity?

There are lots of factors that define and shape who we are as people. One of these factors is our cultural identity, which can have a big influence on how we view the world and how we feel we fit into it.

Our cultural identity is made up of a unique combination of a number of different things, like:

  • where we grew up
  • where we live now
  • where our parents come from
  • our religion
  • the language we speak
  • our race or ethnicity

And our cultural identity can influence and shape things like:

  • our values
  • where we spend our time
  • who we spend time with
  • what we eat and drink
  • our habits and practices
  • our views on health and wellbeing

Your identity is yours to explore

Our cultural identity isn’t fixed; it can change over time. But the environment or culture we have grown up around generally shapes our cultural identity in a significant way.

Many young people in the UK belong to more than one culture. This might resonate with you if you or your family have grown up in a different country or countries. Or you might be part of a diaspora community. This is a community of people who don’t live in the country they’re originally from, but observe their culture where they live now.

You may identify strongly with aspects of your cultural identity, or you may not. This can change as you move through life and have different experiences. Remember, your identity is yours to explore, in your own time and in your own way.

Reflecting on your identity

Sometimes it can be tricky to unpick the different elements of our identity. Below is an exercise you can use to reflect on the different aspects that make you who you are.

Picture a tree. Imagine lots of leaves stemming from a sturdy trunk, with roots going deep into the ground. This tree represents your own personal culture. It’s made up of three key parts: your roots, your trunk and your leaves.

  • Your roots represent your origins – the key building blocks of your identity. This could be your nationality, your religion or any other cultural group you belong to.
  • Your trunk represents the values that are important to you. These might be associated with a culture you belong to, or they might not. These could be things like kindness, hard work, having an open mind.
  • Your leaves represent the outward signs of your identity. This could mean things like the language or languages you speak, the way you dress or the food you like to eat.
A group of three young people laugh and chat while sitting on the ground beside a tree in the park.

Once you have thought about each of these elements, you can draw your tree and label each part. You can have as many roots or leaves as you want, and as many values as you want in your trunk.
Once you’ve finished, here are a couple of questions you can ask yourself:

  • Was this easy to do? Or did you find it difficult to think about the different parts of your identity?
  • Think about your leaves. Are there any that you find difficult to display? Why is that?
  • How might the values in your trunk affect your mental health? For example, if you put ‘hard work’, are you also finding time to relax and practise self-care?
I decided I shouldn't feel ashamed of who I am - nobody should ever feel ashamed of who they are.
Luke, 15

How your cultural identity can affect your mental health

A group of five young people walking together along a path in the park. Two girls are walking ahead and talking, while three boys walk behind them.

There are many ways that your cultural identity can affect your mental health.

You may feel like your culture gives you tools to deal with difficult feelings and situations. But you may also experience challenges related to your cultural identity that impact your mental health.

Everyone can experience difficulties with their culture. However, when you belong to more than one culture, you might feel the impact of cultural identity on your mental health more strongly.

Diversity and difference are great things, and growing up with more than one culture can affect our mental health in positive ways. But, it can also lead to some challenges for your mental health.

  • It can give you access to different perspectives and different ways of looking at things.
  • It can help you feel part of a community.
  • It can give you a strong sense of identity and belonging.
  • It can give you an opportunity to experience other cultures, which can expose you to new ways of thinking about your mental health.
  • It can bring colour and joy to your life by exposing you to new art, music and literature.
  • You might feel like you’re not sure where you belong.
  • You might feel like you sometimes have to choose between one culture or another.
  • Your cultures, beliefs or worldviews might sometimes feel like they conflict with one another.
  • You might feel certain pressures from one culture that people from outside that culture don’t understand.
  • You might feel as though your family members, or other people from within your community, do not always understand your choices.
  • You might feel like you have to “code-switch” (express yourself in different ways depending on the setting).
  • You might experience discrimination tied to your cultural identity, such as racism.
  • If your culture is misrepresented in the media, it can make you feel like it is ‘inferior’ to UK culture. It can also lead to discrimination, stereotyping and racism.
  • Different cultures view and understand mental health in different ways, and you might come from a culture where mental health is not talked about openly, or is not understood in the same way it is in the UK. This can feel confusing and make it hard to talk about what you’re feeling with friends and family.

Discrimination is never okay.

It’s important to remember that discrimination of any kind is never okay, and it’s never your fault. No culture is better or worse than another, and you deserve to feel proud of who you are.

It is the world that’s wrong, not you. So embrace your identity and love what makes you, you.
Sian, 19

Finding your place in more than one culture

A group of young people laughing together outside on a bench. Group includes two black girls (one in a wheelchair), one black boy, and a white boy.

Connecting with your cultural identity can give you a real sense of belonging, and help you find your place in the world. But it can be confusing if you feel as though you don’t fit neatly into one culture. For example, if you have grown up in the UK but your family are from another country, you might feel a bit caught between these two cultures.

This can feel lonely if you don’t have friends and family around you that understand both cultures. You might feel like nobody really gets you, like you have to constantly explain parts of your culture to others, or like you have to hide parts of yourself depending on where you are or who you’re speaking to.

It can be really difficult feeling like you don’t know where you fit in, but you are not alone. Lots of young people have this experience, and there will be people out there who get you; sometimes it just takes a little while to find them.

Here are some things that young people from a mixed cultural background have told us helped them to find their place:

  • Meeting people in person

    Going to community spaces, e.g. places of worship, cultural centres. Seeing if they have any events you can go to, to meet other young people that share your culture.

  • Reading other people's experiences online

    Using social media or online forums to find other people who understand your culture and talk about what you’re going through.

  • Exploring culture through art

    Finding media – music, films, art – that speaks to your experience and celebrates your cultural identity. You could try sharing this with friends who don’t have the same cultural background, and explaining why it’s important to you.

Exploring parts of your cultural identity can be a really joyful and rewarding experience. Remember to be aware of your feelings as you go through this journey. Here are some self-love tips that might help:

It’s really common to fixate on the things you don’t like about yourself. Self-love is all about recognising the parts of you that you do love. Listing the things you love about who you are can remind you how unique and amazing you are.

Treat yourself to some you-time. Taking time to do something you love can reinforce that you are worthy and deserving of love and care.

When we’re thinking about other people’s needs, we often end up saying ‘yes’ to things that we want to say ‘no’ to. But setting boundaries can be a form of self-love. So, if someone asks something of you that you don’t feel up to doing, try saying ‘no’.

Expectations and pressures from your culture and society

Every culture comes with its own set of norms and expectations. This can be difficult to navigate whatever your cultural background. But it can be particularly tough if you have grown up within more than one culture, especially if the expectations feel conflicting.

If you are struggling with the pressure of expectations, it can really help to talk to someone you trust from within your community. This could be:

  • a friend
  • a parent or carer
  • a sibling
  • a cousin, or another member of your extended family
  • a religious or faith leader
  • a teacher

This can really help you feel less alone. It can also help you think about how you want to respond to the expectations or pressures you are facing.

If nobody from within your community comes to mind, try speaking to anyone you trust. Most of us will have felt the pressure to live up to what we believe to be other people’s expectations of us at some point or another, so even if the person you speak to doesn’t fully understand your cultural identity, they may still be able to relate to your experience.

Sometimes, however, the person you talk to may not react the way you hope. This can be a really painful and confusing experience. If this happens, the important thing to remember is that their reaction does not make your experience any less valid. You deserve support and there are lots of people out there who want to support you. There is a list of helpline services at the bottom of this page that you can use to find someone to speak to.

Three young people sitting and talking together in a livingroom.
I was scared of opening up about my mental health because I didn’t want to be seen as a ‘problem kid’ in my family or a burden, a failure. I didn’t want to fall victim to ‘log kya kayenge?' (‘what will people say?’).
Kari shares her experience of anorexia nervosa in the British-Indian diaspora on our blog.
Three people chatting outside.
I love being a Muslim woman because I get to represent my religion, which has a focus on the wellbeing of the world at large. But sometimes, I hate being a visible Muslim woman because of the pressures that come with it.
One blogger shares how societal pressures and misconceptions of her faith impact her mental health on our blog.

Talking to your family about mental health

A mother and daughter cuddling closely looking relaxed and happy

Sometimes, if you and your parents or carers have grown up in different cultures, it can cause some tension and misunderstanding. You may feel like your parents don’t always understand you, or you don’t know how to talk to them about certain things. This can feel lonely and frustrating, but it’s important to remember that cultures aren’t static. Things change over time. And sometimes that starts with a single conversation.

It can feel daunting having a conversation with your family about mental health. This may be especially true if it’s not something that tends to happen in your family or culture. But below are some tips that young people from a range of different cultures shared, which may help.

  • Plan what you want to say in advance

    Plan what you want to say in advance. You might even find it helpful to take notes. This can help you think about what you want to communicate, and can take away some of the anxiety about not saying everything you want to say.

  • Think about the language you want to use

    If you use more than one language at home, think about which language you feel most comfortable speaking in to describe your feelings. It may even help to think about specific words or phrases you want to use to describe what’s going on for you.

  • Have a look online for resources that could help

    Have a look to see if there’s anything online that can help you describe what you’re experiencing to your family member. It could be an article, video or podcast, or you could share one of our guides for parents.

  • Think about the timing

    Try to pick a time when you and your family member have nothing else going on. If one of you is in a rush, it can add pressure to the conversation. Taking your time can really help.

  • Plan some time for self-care afterwards

    Plan some time to relax afterwards. It can be emotionally draining talking about your mental health, so it’s a good idea to plan in some time afterwards to chill out and do something you enjoy.

  • Prepare for things to not go the way you hope

    Be prepared for the conversation to not go the way you expect. Although it might go better than you think, it could also be more challenging. Whatever happens, be proud of yourself for taking this step.

Navigating cultural stigma

Different cultures have different ways of understanding mental health. Some cultures view it in medical terms, but other cultures might view it more in spiritual or religious terms. Unfortunately, mental health stigma exists to some degree in all cultures.

If cultural stigma towards mental health is making you worried to talk about how you’re feeling with your family, the important thing to remember is that your feelings are valid. Whatever response you get doesn’t change that fact.

Here are some tips that can help you to navigate cultural stigma when talking to your family. They might not all feel appropriate for you, and that’s okay. Just try whatever feels right for your situation.

Most people will be able to relate to difficult feelings, even if they can’t relate to mental health terminology. By focusing on how you’re feeling and what help you think you might need rather than using labels, this might help them to understand you better.

Don’t be afraid to let your family know how important it is for you that they listen to what you have to say. You could try saying “I know this isn’t an easy conversation for either of us, but please listen to what I have to say. I really want to be able to talk about this with you.”

Before the conversation, it might help to think about what outcome you want. Do you want them to help you get support? Or do you just want them to listen? Knowing what you want to get out of the conversation can help you think about what to say.

Your family may well be really supportive, but if you feel they’re being dismissive, try not to take it to mean that your feelings aren’t valid. How you feel matters; try to remind yourself that their reaction doesn’t change that.

If a conversation feels too difficult, it can really help to put down in writing what you want to say to them. Whether you share the letter with them is up to you. Either way, it can be a good opportunity to communicate everything you want without pressure or fear of being interrupted.

Family pressures and cultural stigma

  • As part of our campaign on mental health for young Muslims, we co-created a guide to navigating family pressure and cultural stigma. Although the guide was created with young Muslims in mind, you may find the information and advice might helpful whatever your background.

We asked a group of young people from a range of cultures what can help make that first conversation with your family about mental health easier. Here’s what they said:

  • "As much as it shouldn't be your role, educating your family about mental health helps you and them."

  • "Exposing them to shows/documentaries about mental health can be an easy way to make them more aware."

  • "Times are always changing and views are always expanding. Things like this fall into place."

Three people sitting and laughing on the sofa.
Over time, things did change within my extended family. Relatives have slowly become more open and accepting of the struggles that we as humans go through.
Shah describes his experience of opening up about mental health as a young Muslim man, and shares his advice on overcoming the challenges of generational differences.
Text over a white background that reads: A guide for tough conversation by Blair Imani. The list reads: 1. start from a place of mutual respect, 2. speak to share, not to change minds, 3. be present and listen with intention, 4. set boundaries and respect boundaries, 5. speak from your personal experience. Not on behalf of others. Be open to credible sources when discussing information that is not personal, 6. be patient with yourself and others. Text at the end reads: Conversations do not need to be won.

Image by @blairimani on Instagram. Text reads: "A guide for tough conversations by Blair Imani. 1. Start from a place of mutual respect. 2. Speak to share, not to change minds. 3. Be present and listen with intention. 4. Set boundaries and respect boundaries. 5. Speak from your personal experience, not on behalf of others. Be open to credible sources when discussing information that is not personal. 6. Be patient with yourself and others. Conversations do not need to be won."

Getting professional help that's right for you

If you’re struggling to cope with your mental health and it’s affecting your daily life, it’s really important that you reach out for help. This can feel scary but you deserve support, whatever you’re going through.

A good starting point is to speak to your GP. GPs help people struggling with their mental health every day; it’s an important part of their job. They will be able to tell you what support is available in your area, and help you to access that support. They can also talk to you about medication and other things you can do to look after your mental health.

We have lots of information and advice on speaking to your GP on our webpage.

How to speak to your GP
A young Black woman in a wheelchair and an older Black woman sitting on a bench in the park. They are laughing together.

Your GP may refer you on to a mental health specialist, like a psychiatrist, a therapist or a counsellor. If you are under 18, they may refer you to Child Adolescent and Mental Health Services (CAMHS). You can find out more about CAMHS in our guide.

Guide to CAMHS

If you don’t feel able to speak to your GP for any reason, there are other options you can try. If you’re in school, college or university, there may be a counselling service you can use. Speak to a teacher or professor that you trust, and they can let you know.

There are also helplines that you can call for free, anonymous support.

See our list of helplines and support
A yellow polka-dot background is layered with boxes featuring text. The title is: notes to my white therapist. The other boxes read: you are allowed to address the elephant in the room, I'd rather you ask me questions than pretend to know my culture, I would appreciate if you do some research so I can use my session, honesty is better than fear of saying the 'wrong thing', I might not fit into your approach but we can still connect authentically. @dr.nadiasadiq is signed at the bottom right of the image.

Image by @spiritual.psychologist on Instagram. Text reads: "Notes to my White therapist. You are allowed to address the elephant in the room. I'd rather you ask me questions than pretend to know my culture. I would appreciate if you do some research so I can use my session. Honesty is better than fear of saying the 'wrong thing'. I might not fit in to your approach but we can still connect authentically."

Support that works for you

We know that support and advice that doesn’t take into account your culture can be unhelpful. You deserve professional help that is culturally-informed, so you can feel truly understood and get the right support for you.

Unfortunately, you don’t always get a choice when it comes to who you speak to within the NHS. But if it feels important to you to speak to someone who understands your background, it’s okay to ask. Or, if the person you’ve been given to speak to doesn’t feel right for you, you can ask to see someone else. This might not always work, but it’s helpful for the people treating you to know.

However, if you’re not able to speak to someone who shares your cultural background, try to keep an open mind. Mental health professionals are trained to be open-minded and non-judgemental, and they may well still be able to help you.

If you are seeing a mental health professional who doesn’t share your cultural background or faith, and you feel this is having an impact on how they can support you, it’s also okay to talk to them about how this makes you feel. It can feel uncomfortable at times, but there may be things they can do to show better cultural sensitivity and understanding. However, it’s important to remember that it’s not your responsibility to teach them about your faith, culture or background. When it comes to mental health support, it’s important to think about what’s right for you.

Find out more about how to access therapy on our guide to counselling and therapy.

Counselling and therapy

Where to get help

Remember, you are not alone. Here are some services who can help and support you without judgement.

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This page was reviewed in June 2023.

It was co-created by young people from a variety of cultural backgrounds.

We will next review the page in 2026.

YoungMinds is a proud member of PIF TICK – the UK's quality mark for trusted health information.

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