Cultural Factors in Diagnosis

new1I just had my first session with a 20-year-old woman who meets the DSM criteria for borderline personality disorder.  Her emotions are very labile, her relationship with her boyfriend is unstable and she was fired from her job as a nanny recently because she was often late and had frequent crying spells.  I think DBT would be a good treatment for her, but she immigrated from Thailand three months ago and I don’t know whether DBT has been used with Thai Americans.

It’s important to be aware of the importance of culture in choosing a treatment modality, but before addressing that question let’s look at the issue of culture related to diagnosis.  This young woman’s recent immigration is the context for her symptoms, which makes an initial diagnosis of adjustment disorder more appropriate than borderline personality disorder.  If she came alone to take a job as a nanny, the drastic change in cultures would be exacerbated by a loss of social support and the network of relationships she left behind.  If she came with her boyfriend, that relationship would be under tremendous strain as they both adjust to U.S culture.  In one session, you don’t have time to gather information about her history and background to know whether these symptoms have been longstanding, as required for a personality disorder diagnosis, or whether they developed around the time of her immigration.

Regarding the question of treatment modality, it is possible she would benefit from learning some of the skills that are part of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).  However, if you begin with a diagnosis of adjustment disorder, the initial focus of treatment will be on learning more about the circumstances of her immigration and her life in Thailand as well as her three months in the U.S.  You will also want to learn more about her previous strategies for coping with distress, her interpersonal relationships including the boyfriend, and her educational and work achievements.  It would also be advisable to learn more about resources appropriate for recent Thai immigrants as well as to research available mental health providers who are fluent in her native language.  It will be important to take a collaborative approach with the client, asking what she feels would be helpful and what steps she wants to take, as you talk with  her about different treatment options with you or other providers and social supports that are relevant to her circumstances.  Consulting with your supervisor, teachers and colleagues who have knowledge and expertise in clinical issues related to immigration and Thai-American culture will also be valuable.

If the client decides to continue in treatment with you, you can then move to the question of specific treatment goals and interventions.  Your consultation and supervision may give you information about interventions shown to be effective with Thai American immigrants, but your client’s responses and preferences about treatment are the best source of guidance.  You should be prepared to adapt interventions, like DBT, that were developed for a different cultural group and to pay close attention to the subtleties of the therapeutic relationship to gauge the impact of your interactions.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful in working with an individual or family who has recently immigrated from another country and culture.  Please email me with comments, questions or suggestions for future blog topics.