Attitudes to health and sickness

  • Italians fear cancer and tend not to mention the word when referring to the illness.
  • Older Italians tend to stigmatise mental illness.
  • Parents of intellectually disabled children might not use available services due to feelings of shame.
  • Older people might have had little interaction with the health system.
  • There might be a belief that illness might be caused by the evil eye.
  • Lifestyle risk factors are often present in older Italians as a result of low exercise patterns. Common problems include obesity and smoking especially in men.
  • Statistics show lower mean systolic and diastolic blood pressure readings, lower levels of heart and respiratory disease, higher rates of cancer of the stomach and nasopharynx.
  • Mortality rates for diabetes are higher in Italian women than the general population.

The above points were sourced from Cultural Diversity, Queensland health.

Italians tend to not use the word cancer and might instead use the phrase “quel brutto male” (that bad illness). This tendency aims to downplay the seriousness of the disease and maintains hope for the ill person.

There is a general belief amongst the older Italian community that mental illness should not be spoken about and that there is shame surrounding it. Evidence of mental illness might be covered up by the family in an effort to keep a positive appearance within the community.

Parents of children with intellectual disabilities will generally not use available services as they might see the disability as an illness and therefore  as their son or daughter not being able to work. A distrust of outside intervention is exhibited as the family believes that no one else can provide care equal to their own. Another prevailing feeling in an older Italian parent is that their child is their responsibility totally.

The belief in the power of the evil eye to cause illness is not widespread but is likely to be a product of an old belief system rooted in village life and pagan folklore. This form of superstition can also be witnessed amongst older people from other European countries. The evil eye stems from the belief that admiration or jealousy can provoke harm and that some individuals can harness this energy.

Due to lack of bilingual workers and to difficulty in communication, many Italian migrants might have been treated with medication only. Medical practitioners would find it difficult to encourage use of alternative forms of treatment and illness prevention.

Older Italian women have low rates of pap smear tests, breast examinations and mammograms. Their awareness of women’s health issues and screening is very poor. Attitudes contributing to this might stem from the impact of religious teaching and its influence on female modesty or because their focus on health is curative rather than preventative.

Older Italians place great trust and authority in doctors and in their power to heal. Often they will refrain from getting a second opinion or questioning the advice or prescription given by a doctor out of fear of appearing disrespectful or being seen to question authority or risk receiving lower quality care.

Dementia might not be diagnosed until later in the progress of the disease since Italians might not raise what they consider to be minor issues with their doctors. This and the deference given to doctors might influence how much of their doctor’s time an Italian patient might be prepared to command. Slowly the Italian community is starting to learn a lot more about Dementia and wherever possible, providing translated material on the condition is a good idea. The provision of the same written material in English for children to read is also necessary to increase the general knowledge about Dementia.

Not a lot is known amongst the Italian community about the scope of service involved in Palliative Care or how to access it. Providing information in Italian and English is essential to educating both generations.