Linkages Between Mental Health Need and Help-Seeking Behavior Among Adolescents

Moderating Role of Ethnicity and Cultural Values

Published in: Journal of Counseling Psychology, v. 62, no. 4, Oct. 2015, p. 682-693

Posted on RAND.org on November 12, 2015

by Sisi Guo, Hannah Nguyen, Bahr Weiss, Victoria K. Ngo, Anna S. Lau

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Research Question

  1. Do cultural factors play a key role in whether adolescents seek professional help for mental health problems?

Risk of developing emotional and behavioral mental health problems increases markedly during adolescence. Despite this increasing need, most adolescents, particularly ethnic minority youth, do not seek professional help. Informed by conceptual models of health behavior, the current study examined how cultural values are related to help seeking among adolescents from 2 distinct racial/ethnic groups. Using a prospective survey design, 169 Vietnamese American and European American youth in 10th and 11th grade reported on their mental health need, as measured by emotional/behavioral mental health symptoms and stressful life events, with participants reporting on their help-seeking behavior at 6-month follow-up assessments. Multinomial logistic regression analyses indicated that mental health need interacted with cultural values and ethnicity to predict help-seeking behavior. Specifically, associations between symptoms and stressful life events, and help-seeking behavior were smaller among Vietnamese American adolescents, and among adolescents with strong family obligation values. These results underscore the complex sociocultural factors influencing adolescents' help-seeking behavior, which have important implications for engaging youth in needed mental health care.

Key Findings

  • Vietnamese American adolescents were far less likely to seek help from a mental health professional than their European American peers despite Vietnamese Americans reporting significantly higher mental health needs.
  • As levels of mental health need increased, European American youth were more likely to seek help than their Vietnamese Americans peers.
  • Academic stress was the only indicator of mental health need that predicted formal help-seeking across all adolescents.
  • Although disparities were observed in formal help-seeking from mental health professionals, there were no ethnic differences in informal help-seeking from relatives, teachers, and peers.
  • In terms of cultural values, a greater sense of family obligation was reported by Vietnamese Americans, and this orientation appeared to deter adolescents from seeking help for stressful life events involving family issues.

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