Speak Our Language—Language, Culture, Social Media and Mental Health

The role of language is fascinating, yet overlooked and understated. Language can be a barrier, or a bridge. Even grudgingly, it is used as a measure of intelligence or sophistication. English speakers are seen as being more sophisticated and intelligent as knowing this language is like the opening of doors across the world; yet, not knowing other languages potentially closes us off from exploring the literature or shows produced in those languages. Would we be able to fully understand and enjoy anime without subtitles, for example? Surely we can understand universal non-verbal communication or guess the story based on context, but subtitles allow us to immerse ourselves in the river of experience. Even so, translations are quite limited—we’re missing the intricacies of the original version; we can only bathe in a river, but not the sea. 

Music, however, is a language in itself and the language sung is an instrument, the nature of the language influences the type of beats and melody written and creates a variety of music one can appreciate. Mandarin and Japanese are such poetic languages, Arabic is such a precise and beautiful language; their literature is rich and vivid. The world beyond English is a world that exists and it is beautiful and sophisticated, and one’s fluency in English is not a measure of intelligence. 

With that being said, an assumption made to write the previous rhetoric of enjoying anime without subtitles included an assumption that everyone uses English subtitles. However, upon retrospection, that is further than the truth. The many subtitle options on Netflix and Youtube shows the demand for subtitles other than English. 

Thus, the role of language is peeled and peered into from an entertainment perspective. There is another aspect which demonstrates an imbalance of progress and understanding, and that is in public health, namely access to mental health awareness and services. 

Language and culture are intertwined in such a way that a preferred language would lead to a specific ideology regarding an issue. Language is the basis of a culture; one cannot learn a language without exploring a bit of the culture that comes along with it, and culture is what shapes a community and what is perceived as a social norm. Evidently, a linguistic gap would not only hinder communication, but it would also harden the process of finding a common ground and approaching certain matters in a way that is appropriate to one’s cultural beliefs. 

This is more prominent in issues such as mental health where different cultures, more often than not, would have different takes on the matter. Schizophrenia is an ideal example of an issue where cultural opinions lead to diverging solutions. Some cultures believe schizophrenia to be a form of demonic possession while science would say that it is caused by a biochemical imbalance. In the bigger picture, the difference in opinions regarding mental health would bring dire effects to not only people who are facing mental health issues and lack access to significant healthcare, but it might also drive a wedge in the community, whereby some see the ones struggling as a burden, and some resist against that. 

Nowadays, many reach out for help after exposure to awareness and encouragement from social media. There is a boom of infographics on mental health and self-care advocacy correlating with an overall rise in mental health awareness globally.  On Twitter, the following for psychologists and psychiatrists in Malaysia publishing educational “threads”—a chain of tweets—has increased with some publishing it in English and others publishing it in Malay. The significance of the language used relates to algorithms, and what is known as echo chambers and social media bubbles. 

If we do not actively build a well rounded feed going against the algorithm, then it is most probable that only thoughts that echo ours will appear on our feed and reinforce them. One also does not necessarily consume mainly English or Malay-based content. There may not necessarily be stigma-perpetuating content circulating, but there may be a lack of propagation in regards to destigmatising content. Even if there are, the reach of the post depends on consumer interest. Even if stigma does not come from the internet, it may already be ingrained in cultures and may be a taboo not talked about.

Such issues can have effects on several levels. On an interpersonal level, in harboring stigmatising attitudes towards mental health, one can easily invalidate the struggles of another, especially when others decide to open up about what is taboo in their culture. In fact, there are still mean comments under news reports that involve this issue. This may push back anyone who wants to be heard and validated. 

The link between the type of response and one’s language and culture is not direct or clear-cut, and it is not necessarily a dichotomy whereby “English speaking people are open minded, and Malay or Chinese or Tamil speaking people are close-minded”. On the contrary, the unique mixture of cultural upbringing and the content one is exposed to affects a person’s perspective, with a large amount of content that they consume being social media. With the mental health movement having been spearheaded by Western countries (in which the content produced is in English), the increased likelihood that we follow accounts that are based in those countries will cause them to be increasingly recommended to us. Ironically, despite the fact that we would be consuming content that would induce us to be more open-minded, we would still be enclosing ourselves within a bubble of supposed acceptance whilst stigma continues to exist outside this bubble.

On a systemic level, in many places of the world, there is an insufficient amount of help for people who have mental health issues and lack the ability to converse in a country’s dominant language. This is especially true for countries that are experiencing a proliferation in immigrant and refugee populations. In countries like Canada that have an ever-growing amount of immigrants, steps such as a wider range of languages used to provide information and the use of interpreters are efforts carried out in order to break down the barriers that have been built due to the differences in languages spoken and provide help to those who need it. However, the use of interpreters is not as efficient as it could be because it only solves the problem of a linguistic gap and might hinder the process of providing care for patients as interpreters might lack the training that psychiatrists spend years learning and improving on. 

In order to bridge this gap in quality of help provided, other countries could adapt the same practices as the ones used in Canada. The amount of neglect that immigrants and refugees face in this area should not be as large as it is. The community as a whole should also take further steps in trying to learn and understand different cultures. This is quintessential in bridging the gap between different ideologies regarding mental health and bringing us, as a community, one step closer to helping those who are struggling with their mental health. This way, perhaps a more accessible method of mental healthcare could be implemented for different cultures. 

By: Diya Aisha and Amirah Farzana

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