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Mental health in Mandarin Chinese: a starter kit for dialogue

Mental health is quite personal, multifaceted, complex, and this holds true to each individual. In some Chinese households mental health is not a casual conversation topic, which may make it more difficult for certain individuals who struggle with mental health to ask for help. Bilingual children who speak Chinese at home and English in school may also run into hindrance when searching for the right words to express themselves, which also makes it challenging to talk about mental health at home. Some bilingual children of immigrant parents may feel agitation and confusion when trying to appropriately express themselves. It must be noted that even bilingual therapists also struggle with translating the proper English mental health terms into Mandarin Chinese.

Mandarin speaking mental health professionals, community members, academics, and translators were asked for words that most often led to cross-cultural misunderstandings and language to open dialogue. Here are some common themes that came to mind:

  • 吃苦 -Chi Ku – Eating bitterness
  • 面子-Mianzi- Saving face
  • 为了你-Wei le ni- For you
  • 胖-Pang- Fat
  • 壮-Zhuang- Strong
  • 晒黑-Shai hei- Tan
  • 同志-Tong zhi- LGBTQ+
  • 他/她/TA -Ta-He, She, They
  • 心理治疗-Xin li zhi liao-psychotherapy
  • 自我关爱-Zi wo guan ai- Self care
  • 悲伤-Bei Shang- Grief
  • 遗憾-Yi han- Pity
  • 压力-Ya li- Pressure
  • 抑郁症-Yi yu zheng- Depression

Although there are official words for diagnoses in Mandarin, to Mandarin Chinese speakers these words may feel clinical, and many may not even recognize them. Emotional concepts like being vulnerable do not have direct translations. Mental health experts agree that the greatest mental health barriers in the older generations are cultural stigmas. However, by learning new words you are better able to express yourself and articulate. Language, culture, and mental health are ever so intertwined, they go hand in hand, hence the need for a healthy balance and deeper understanding of all.



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