Mental Health Interpreting: 5 Reasons Interpreters Are Important

mental health interpreting

Language access is vital in any clinical setting. Mental health is no exception, but it does present unique challenges for interpreters and patients alike. Here are five reasons mental health interpreting is so important.

Mental health interpreting increases access to care.

Whether it’s an emergency or a routine GP visit, effective communication between patients and clinicians is essential for quality care. Medical interpreters save lives.

But it might be even more important in the realm of mental health. In many cases, mental health patients don’t have physical symptoms that can be independently measured. To get access to care, patients have to be able to describe their emotional state. That can be difficult, even in your first language.

Without access to mental health interpreting services, patients with limited English or those who prefer to use sign language may find it impossible to seek help in the first place. In fact, according to Frontiers in Public Health,

[R]esearch in High Income Countries (HICs) like Australia, Canada and the United States emphasizes that diverse cultures in these countries tend to seek help much later than those from the majority community and many of them tend to present in acute stages of mental distress.

Interpreting services can help bridge the gap, so people get treatment when they need it. 

Mental health interpreters help patients understand their treatments.

Informed consent is a cornerstone of medical ethics. It’s also a vital part of mental healthcare, especially when the treatments themselves can be distressing or traumatic for the patient.

For example, if a patient appears to be a danger to themselves or others, hospitalisation may be necessary. But it can also be frightening for patients. That’s true even for patients who know what’s going on and speak the same language as the people around them. Language barriers increase their feelings of isolation and loss of control.

Even in less dire situations, though, patients must understand the drugs they’ve been prescribed, along with the potential side effects. They also need the opportunity to ask questions and get answers that they can easily understand.  Interpreters make it possible for patients to understand the risks and benefits of a given treatment plan. That way, they can make informed decisions.

Mental health interpreting increases patient safety and compliance.

It’s no secret that mental illness leads to impaired quality of life. For some people, it can also lead to injury or death, whether through suicide, self-medication or risky behaviour.  Communication barriers make it harder for patients to reach out and for clinicians to spot red flags before it’s too late.

Meanwhile, treatment for psychiatric disorders can take years. For some people, it’s a lifelong struggle.  Ensuring that patients comply with prescribed drug regimens is a challenge in and of itself.  Mental health interpreters can help patients and their families understand why it’s important that they take their pills, what side effects to look for and when to seek additional help.

Mental health interpreters reduce the risk of misunderstanding and misdiagnosis.

Interpreters interpret more than just spoken words. They also translate differences between cultures. These differences influence the way people talk about mental illness and describe their symptoms. In mental healthcare, these misunderstandings can easily lead to misdiagnosis.

For example, what would you think if someone told you they felt like they had insects crawling underneath their skin? Most people (including doctors) from Western backgrounds would assume that the person in question was having a psychotic episode, or perhaps using street drugs.

When a Nigerian man sought help for these symptoms at a hospital in Virginia, the graduate student doing the assessment assumed he was schizophrenic. Fortunately, she checked with her advisor, Dr Brian Sharpless, before starting treatment.  Here’s what happened next, according to the Boston Globe:

“Is he by any chance Nigerian?” Sharpless asked. “Yes!” she replied. “How did you know?”

“He’s not psychotic — that’s Ode Ori,” Sharpless responded. “He’s having a panic attack.”

Ode Ori is, in Nigerian Yoruba culture, the manifestation of acute distress. It’s a crawling sensation in the head and under the skin, noises in the ears, heart palpitations, both an expression of and accompaniment to anxiety. And anxiety calls for a very different treatment protocol than schizophrenia. It was lucky, then, that Sharpless had just recently learned about Ode Ori.

If the patient hadn’t gotten lucky, the consequences could have been quite unpleasant: unnecessary institutionalization and drugs with significant side effects.

An interpreter who is familiar with the culture and trained to interpret in mental healthcare situations can recognize these issues and head off problems before they occur.

Culture-bound mental illnesses: the case of the disappearing penises

In fact, culture can influence mental health issues so profoundly that some mental illnesses are only found in certain cultures. These are called “culture-bound mental illnesses.” For example, in Southeast Asia and Africa, people sometimes experience a condition called koro, in which they believe their penises are disappearing. According to Scientific American, the condition “sometimes spreads in waves of mass panic and is triggered by marked anxiety.”

Many cultures lack easy equivalents for English mental healthcare terms.

For example, take a look at this Medium post by Cindy A. Nguyen.   Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American daughter of refugees. In the post, she describes the difficulties she faced in explaining her struggles with depression and anxiety to her mother. Her mother’s primary language was Vietnamese, and the vocabulary to express her mental healthcare needs didn’t exist in the same way it does in English:

[I]n her childhood in Vietnam, when anyone discussed mental states people were either cast into the category of “normal (bình thường)” or “crazy (điên).”

In mental health situations, interpreters can work with patients and their families to help explain concepts that they aren’t familiar with.

Mental health interpreter training: How to find interpreters that specialise in mental healthcare

Mental health interpreting is a specialised subset of medical interpreting.  Interpreters need to understand mental health terminology and as well as how mental health issues are viewed in the communities they serve.

At K International, we make it easy to find trained, professional interpreters to assist in the languages you need, including BSL. Options include in-person appointments, video interpreting, and telephone interpreting.

For more information, contact us today to discuss your interpreting needs!