Cultural Understandings of Mental health: The Role of Language and Ethnic Identity

Kelly Kato


Mexican Americans interviewed in Spanish (vs. English) tend to have worse self-rated health despite their low morbidity and mortality. This project tests whether this language-of-interview effect also exists in the realm of mental health, and whether this pattern is due to Spanish-language interviewees’ lower acculturation to the United States. Analyses rely on secondary data from 865 Mexican Americans from the National Latino and Asian Americans Study. Multinomial logistic regressions are conducted to test whether the language of the interview is associated with the dissonance between self-rated mental health (SRMH) and diagnostic criteria for any of the most common psychiatric disorders. Acculturation measures are added to the model to explore its role. Results show that respondents interviewed in Spanish have higher risk of worse SRMH despite not having psychiatric disorders. Acculturation measures explain the association between interview language and SRMH without psychiatric disorders. Specifically, language proficiency and ethnic identity (acculturation measures) appear to be the main drivers of this change. Consistent with the physical health literature, Spanish-language interviewees tend to have worse SRMH without psychiatric disorders (dissonant outcomes), compared to English-language interviewees. Results also suggest that lower acculturation to the United States among Spanish-language interviewees explains these patterns. Research on the relationship between acculturation measures and understandings of mental health among Mexican Americans can provide insights about their help-seeking behaviors and treatment. Implications for other cases of international migration are also discussed.


Self-rated mental health, psychiatric disorders, language, ethnic identity, Mexican Americans.

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