Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

Elements of Culture

“Culture refers to integrated patterns of human behavior that include the language, thoughts, communications, actions, customs, beliefs, values, and institutions of racial, ethnic, religious, or social groups.”1

People typically think of culture in terms of race or ethnicity, but culture also refers to other social groups defined by characteristics such as age, gender, religion, income level, education, geographical location, sexual orientation, disability, or profession. 

Culture includes the following elements:2

  • Norms (how people behave)
  • Values (what is important to people)
  • Beliefs (what people think about something)
  • Symbols (how people express themselves through art, stories, music, language, etc.)
  • Practices (customs or patterns of behavior that may not be connected to beliefs and values)

Some elements of culture are easy to see, but most elements of culture are hidden. For example, in some cultures it is frowned upon for people to get help from professionals for emotional problems. This norm may prevent people from seeking the help they need. So when doing prevention for a particular population group, it is important to be aware of cultural norms and practices that may compromise the effectiveness of an intervention.



  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Minority Health. (2005, October 19). What is cultural competency? Retrieved from
  2. Griswold, W. (2008). Cultures and societies in a changing world (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.