— Sara Nasser is a licensed clinical/community mental health counselor and art therapist.
It appears the only time we ever really hear about mental health issues in our community is when something unfortunate has happened. So, naturally, the subject becomes a topic of fear to some. Oftentimes, mental illness is hard to recognize or understand because it isn’t something that we can necessarily see physically, and this only further perpetuates the stigma surrounding it. It is usually because of this that someone with a physical illness or injury receives far more empathy than someone with a mental illness. To help ourselves and others, we need to change the way we talk about the subject of mental health and illnesses. We speak about what a tragedy it is when someone resorts to suicide in the community, but what have we been doing as a collective to prevent it?
It is imperative that as a community we do our best to make sure that this is a safe space where individuals feel comfortable to share their experiences and emotions, free of judgment, which, unfortunately, the community can often be full of. Due to ignorance on the subject of mental health and illness, we are often told by the older generation that we need to turn to God and everything will be okay. While turning to religion and spirituality can very much be a helpful resource for someone working through their mental health, it isn’t enough for everyone. We can’t, however, necessarily put blame on the older generation for this mentality.
Intergenerational or transgenerational trauma is a psychological theory that suggests that trauma can be transferred in between generations. The process of immigration and acculturation, where an individual must navigate new physical, structural, political and social systems, can lead to acculturative stress. Immigrants adapting to new cultures where previous education and qualifications are not acknowledged may need to find new jobs or take steps to receive the recognition required for employment. Parents of school-age children need to navigate an unfamiliar education system in a new language to enroll their children in school and children need to adjust to schools where expectations and social norms may differ from those in their native country while learning a new language.
These changes may lead to lower self-esteem, stress and social adjustment problems. In addition to experiencing acculturative stress, which is common to many immigrant groups, Arab Americans experience unique stress from discrimination resulting from negative perceptions about Arabs in popular media. More often, Arab Americans feel more comfortable seeking help from their primary care physicians than seeing a mental health professional and will express their mental health concerns somatically. i.e. anxiety turns to a tight chest.
It can be incredibly difficult as children of immigrants to ask for help or speak on our personal struggles because these struggles feel like a privilege and trivial in comparison to what our parents and/or grandparents have endured. Sometimes we are reminded of these struggles by guilt and then silence ourselves as a result. Sometimes we are reminded by family of these struggles as well. Regardless, we must keep in mind that our feelings and issues are valid. Our issues do not need to be understood or validated by others to make them real.
So long as you made the effort to try to speak up and educate those around you, at a certain point it is no longer for them, but for you. Take care of your mental health by not only educating yourself, but by speaking up and reaching out when need be. This is a form of self-care which is incredibly important to put into practice and is easy to forget when coming from a collectivist culture like ours where the whole is the focus and not the individual. But it is kind of like that old oxygen mask analogy on an airplane. You put the mask on yourself before assisting others. It is very difficult to live life up to our full potential if we are not taking care of our mental health.
There are a few misconceptions about mental health that many people have. To begin with everyone has mental health, just like everyone has physical health and it is not synonymous with mental illness. While not everyone will experience a mental illness, everyone will have a challenge or struggle with their mental well-being at some point throughout the course of their lives.
Just as someone who feels unwell may not have a serious physical illness, someone can have poor mental health but not have a mental illness. We all have days where we feel a bit down, stressed out or overwhelmed by something that’s happening in our lives. But an important part of mental health is our ability to look at our problems and concerns through a realistic lens.
Having good mental health isn’t about feeling happy and confident 100 percent of the time and ignoring our problems. Rather it is living and coping well despite these problems, which education and therapy can empower us to do. When we make the active decision to work on ourselves, to work on our traumas, we are taking the first step in breaking that cycle and choosing not to pass it along anymore to the next generation.
So to conclude my first point, education is such a key factor when it comes to reducing the stigma of mental health. Sometimes when we don’t understand something, we fear it and in turn avoid it all together. However, by educating ourselves through our own research, attending workshops such as this or even consulting a mental health professional, we take the fear out of mental health and illness because we now understand it and are gaining the tools and skills to navigate through it healthily.
Something that we must be cognizant of while curating this feeling of support and understanding within the community is the language that we use. Language can be so important and the way that we use it can either be part of the problem or part of the solution in terms of reducing the stigma. I think that all of us have been guilty at one point or another of using language inappropriately. Whether it be calling your friend “bi-polar” for their indecisiveness or changing moods or calling yourself “OCD” because you like things clean. I don’t believe that any of this is done in a malicious way, but we still need to be mindful of this because we never know who is listening and which internal battles they are facing.
Another reason why language is important is that when we continuously use pathological adjectives to describe how we feel — we’re “depressed” when we are just mildly sad or “I’m having a panic attack right now” when we’re really just a bit nervous, it normalizes these terms in a negative way so that those who are depressed are almost not taken as seriously because it is word that others have used so often that it doesn’t feel like a big deal. You’d never use a physical illness like cancer as a negative throwaway term to mean lazy or weak. But because mental illness is invisible to most, it enables this slip of language to happen.
The last thing that I would like to mention that I feel can greatly help to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and illness is advocacy. As I mentioned before, we seem to be outspoken in the community when an individual takes their own life, and speak about what a tragedy it is, but what have we been doing in the meantime to make the community a safe space where that doesn’t become an option? Becoming an advocate can be easier than you think. Going back to my two earlier points of language and education, if we can work on these two areas, we are already changing the narrative surrounding mental health in our community in a healthier and accepting way. So that way if someone is feeling depressed and suicidal, they know that there are advocates such as yourselves, hopefully, who don’t view them as weak-minded or pathetic and are willing to speak up and reach out on their behalf.
Try to be outspoken when necessary, whether it be making a small post on World Mental Health Day on your social media accounts or even sharing something local in your community such as a workshop or support group meeting. This can help to not only share resources with those who may need it, but can also help to normalize the idea of attending events that surround the topic of mental health and illness. Even if not for yourself, attending these workshops with a family member or friend who may need it is another way that you can advocate for them. Through education, language and advocacy I hope that we can shift the narrative and reduce the stigma in our community so that no one ever has to struggle in silence again.