Cultural Differences

Students’ cultural backgrounds shape their attitude towards mental illness. One important factor to consider is whether students come from an individualistic society or a collectivist society.

Understanding individualistic and collectivist cultures

Individualistic societies emphasise the needs of the individual rather than the group. New Zealand, Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom and many European countries are considered individualistic societies.

Collectivist societies emphasise the rights of families and communities above those of the individual. Most Asian, Latin American, Russian, African and Pacific Island cultures are guided by collectivism. Japan and China are also influenced by the Confucian philosophy, which values respect for parents, loyalty, patriotism and the value of education.

Differences between individualism and collectivism




‘I’ identity

‘We’ Identity

Individual rights are important

Consideration of others is an integral part of self

Encourage independence and self-reliance

Families or groups protect people in exchange for their loyalty

Strive for their own success

Work together for the success of the group

Promote individual goals

Promote collective goals

Right to privacy


Freedom of speech – it’s healthy to speak your mind

Freedom of silence – you should always promote harmony among the group

Purpose of education is learning how to learn

Purpose of education is learning how to do

Behaviours outside the norm bring guilt

Behaviours outside the norm bring shame


Strong attention paid to non-verbal communication


Individualistic and collectivist cultures and mental illness

Culture influences how people show their symptoms, how they cope, how willing they are to seek treatment, and what family and community support networks they have.

In collectivist cultures, some people may regard people with a mental illness as having a weak character, being possessed by spirits, or suffering because of personal or ancestral wrongdoings. The shame and blame can reflect on all family members, and can lead to people with a mental illness being kept at home or institutionalised.


Psychiatric treatment can be seen as a sign of weakness in many cultures, particularly in South East Asia. Students are more likely to talk to their family or friends about their thoughts and feelings than to seek professional help.

In many collectivist cultures, people are more likely to seek treatment for physical issues than emotional issues. It’s important for people who work with international students to know that students may experience their psychological distress as physical symptoms (known as somatisation).

Professional help tends to be more easily available in individualistic cultures than in collectivist cultures. In Japan and China, for example, doctors and nursing staff working in the psychiatric field are less valued and less well paid, and there are fewer psychiatric staff per capita than in New Zealand, Australia or the United States.

Individualistic and collectivist cultures in the classroom

Learning styles in individualistic cultures

In classrooms in individualistic cultures, teachers expect students to gain knowledge through discussion and inquiry. Students are expected to challenge, to offer their own thoughts and theories, and to take part in classroom discussions.

Individualistic cultures foster independence and self-reliance, particularly in the classroom. While group work is common in New Zealand classrooms, students often work independently, and helping others is considered cheating.


Learning styles in collectivistic cultures

In classrooms in collectivist cultures, a teacher’s role is to convey information in a clear, structured and direct way. Teachers believe knowledge is transferred from an expert to a learner, and it is disrespectful to challenge a teacher’s knowledge. Self-expression is discouraged and students speak up in class only when a teacher asks them personally.

Students are expected to help others in the group to achieve, and to work for the benefit of the class rather than themselves. While students may quietly compete against others, they are reluctant to voice their successes and may attribute their success to the efforts of others.

Putting a student down for answering a question incorrectly is frowned upon. Students are unlikely to volunteer to provide the correct answer to a question if a classmate previously answered it incorrectly.


Pressure to achieve

Many collectivist cultures put pressure on students to achieve. Studies in China have found that academic stress is a predisposing factor in 90% of students with anxiety and depression. A 2014 survey in Korea found that academic pressure was the main reason for more than half of school students suffering from anxiety or stress. Academic pressure also causes high truancy rates in China and Japan.

Some students receive private tuition after school to keep up with the demanding pace of classrooms. Japanese students may have after-school tuition (juku) to prepare for university entrance examinations, with many students starting after-school tuition from as early as the fourth grade.

It’s important for people working with students from Asian countries to understand the admissions process students go through to win a place in a prestigious academic institution.

In Japan, the impact of gaining entry to a top university is far-reaching. A student’s emotional wellbeing and long-term potential for social mobility, financial security and employment opportunities rests on the university exam.

In Japan and China, students’ academic success may reward their families with fame, high social status and honour. Failure may lead to low family status, economic hardship and family shame.


Not all cultures are completely individualistic or completely collectivist. Students may be a blend of both cultures. Each student is unique, and students’ background, personal values and past events will also have an impact on how they view the world.