Photo: Nia Parson

An abused woman who seeks medical help may recover more quickly if health care providers understand her culture, and her social and economic background, says Nia Parson, a medical anthropologist in SMU’s Department of Anthropology.

How can mental health providers best help an abused woman who is a Mexican immigrant?

Scant research has been done to answer that question, Parson says, even though in Texas 39 percent of Hispanic women report experiencing severe abuse. For that reason, the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health in Austin has awarded Parson a one-year, $15,000 grant to examine the mental health care needs of Mexican immigrant women who have sought help after abuse by a boyfriend or a husband.

Abused suffer depression, PTSD, chronic ailments

Nia Parson

Abused women suffer not only physical injuries, but often develop other ailments as well, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic headaches and backaches. They may seek treatment for those problems in emergency rooms, or public or private clinics.

Delivering care in a way that takes into account a person’s cultural and socio-economic background is termed “cultural competency.” However, medical anthropologists have pointed to the need to move beyond notions of culture that are static, stereotypical, and politically and economically without context.

“It is important to recognize the particular situations of abused women who are immigrants and the specific kind of challenges to their recoveries from the abuse, such as a lack of social and family networks, unfamiliarity with social service systems, language barriers and fear of deportation. It is also crucial to examine diversity of experiences within groups, which this research will also do. Not all Mexican immigrants come from the same backgrounds and share the same experiences,” Parson says.

Minorities get lower quality care

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Racial and ethnic minorities are less likely to receive needed mental health services and are more likely to receive lower quality care, according to research cited by the Office of Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in its report “Action Steps for Improving Women’s Mental Health.” The report — based on the landmark “Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General in 1999” — calls for expanding cultural competence across mental health research, training and services. The report also calls for more gender and cultural diversity in mental health academic research and medicine.

Cultural competency could benefit Hispanics and other minorities, according to the 2009 “National Healthcare Disparities Report” by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. According to the report: “Culturally and linguistically appropriate services can decrease the prevalence, incidence, severity, and duration of certain mental disorders.”

The Hogg Foundation in 2005 declared cultural competence one if its priority funding areas. Stating that more than half the population of Texas is ethnic and racial minorities, the foundation says its goal is to increase the availability of effective mental health services for people of color.

Parson already has done some research on cultural competency. In a 2006-07 study of Spanish-speaking immigrant women in New Jersey, Parson found that health care and social services suited for these women were detrimentally lacking.

She also has published research on the struggle for abused women to find adequate and appropriate treatment in Santiago, Chile.

Culturally competent care is beneficial

Hogg Foundation: Providing Evidence-Based Practices to Populations of Color
Texas Council on Family Violence Report: Family Violence in Texas

For some immigrant women, Parson speculates, the proper response might include a public health clinic embedded in the community, or social networks that keep women from feeling isolated. Or it could be that immigrant women need more help finding legal services, getting help with language and computer skills, or connecting with their children’s schools.

“Ultimately, from this research I’d like to broaden our conceptualizations of cultural competency in health care and to have something of value to say to policymakers,” Parson says.

Parson will begin the research this summer. Aided by anthropology graduate student Carina Heckert, Parson will interview 100 women who immigrated to Dallas from Mexico. She and Heckert, along with select undergraduates, will recruit women through The Family Place, a Dallas-based agency that helps victims of family violence by providing intervention, shelter and counseling.

Research to address immigrant women
“Domestic violence research has been conducted over the last 40 years, since the early 1970s,” Parson says. “However, we don’t have much specialized knowledge about how to address the mental health impacts in immigrant women. Recognition of domestic violence as a health issue emerged in the 1990s. And there’s very little research on domestic violence and cultural competency in health care, especially from an anthropological perspective. Medical anthropologists have a lot to contribute to knowledge about how to address mental health problems in diverse populations.”

Parson is one of 12 Texas researchers to receive a research grant from the Hogg Foundation, which promotes improved mental health for Texans.

“Academic research is an important tool in our quest to understand the complexities of mental health,” said Octavio N. Martinez Jr., executive director of the foundation, in announcing the awards. “The Hogg Foundation selected these projects because they address issues that profoundly affect people’s lives.” — Margaret Allen

Related links:
Nia Parson
The Hogg Foundation for Mental Health
SMU Department of Anthropology
Report: Action Steps for Improving Women’s Mental Health
News release: 12 Mental Health Researchers in Texas Receive Hogg Foundation Grants
Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General
Surgeon General Report: Mental Health: Culture, Race, and Ethnicity
Access Denied: A conversation on unauthorized In/migration and health
SMU Dedman College