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Issue 422 -- Feb. 27- Mar 05, 2010
The Somali Community Needs To Learn To Deal With The Reality Of Mental Illness
By Obsiye and Salah
Mental health is a very real and difficult issue which many in society face.
Mental health concerns how those with mental illness think, feel and consequently behave. According to the National Health Service (NHS) of Great Britain one in four people in the UK have a mental health problem at some point in their lives that affects their daily life, relationships or physical health.
The simple fact is that mental ill health is not exclusive to one group or people within society and it is not linked to any individual characteristic or personality traits. Mental health problems can affect anyone and at any time during their life and without the correct support and treatment, mental health problems can effect and seriously damage individuals sufferers, their families and those around the sufferer. According to the NHS every year over 250,000 people are admitted to psychiatric hospitals and around 4,000 people commit suicide as a result.
Mental health disorders take many different forms and affect people in differing ways. Some of the most common and best known mental disorders are depression, stress, personality disorders and schizophrenia. Mental disorders can also include dementia which usually is associated with old age and eating disorders which are more common in young people today.
The reasons for mental health development in individuals are complex and personal and contrary to stereotypical prejudices, there is no one single cause. However, mental health issues are more prevalent in some groups than others and members of these groups tend to be the most vulnerable in society. These include the homeless, those from ethnic minority backgrounds, the disabled and those subject to immigration control or who are seeking asylum in the UK. Key events such as loss of family member, family breakdown, being made redundant from employment and long term alcohol and drug abuse can also lead to poor mental health.
Due to their vulnerability and a lack of understanding of their social issues, people with mental health problems are widely discriminated against in wider society and this is detrimental to the effected individual’s recovery as it worsens their mental health problem and slows down or even hampers their potential recovery.
Many Somalis in the UK suffer from mental illness and need support, advice and guidance in order to recover from it. Even if they cannot make a full recovery, they can be supported to enable them to cope with their mental illness. Thanks to medical advancement and innovations there are various treatments available free on the NHS. Among these are medication, counseling services and psychotherapy. However, despite all this, one of the key reasons why mental illness is so prevalent among Somalis in the UK and wider world is because of the stereotypically negative way it is viewed within the Somali culture.
Traditionally Somalis did not know about mental illness and even the limited few that might have known about it were ignorant to it. The reason for this is because in the Somali culture those with mental illness, regardless of how minor, are seen as weak, problematic and a shame on the family. The whole concept of been mentally unwell was and still remains, with a large section of the Somali communities worldwide, a social taboo which could potentially bring individual families perceived honor into question. As a result of this, many mentally ill Somali’s living in the developed world, despite the support and medical treatment available, seek no help or are fearful to even reveal they are mentally unwell in case they are marginalized by their own families and community. Many family members who are aware of their relative’s illness selfishly do not speak out or seek help on their behalf for fear of ruining a perfect family image at the cost of the mentally unwell relative’s recovery.
The vast majority of Somalis living in the West have immigrated to their new respective Countries of residence as a result of a violent and deadly civil war which rages on today, nearly twenty years after it first started. Many of these immigrants are now settled in their new Western homelands and some even have children who are considered first generation Somali westerners. However, the traumas associated with war such as losing family members, losing one’s livelihood, wealth and starting all over again in an alien foreign land as a refugee have taken their toll on many members of the Somali Community members living in the West. Even some of those who have come to the western countries as children and have grown up there and have no recollection of Somalia suffer from common mental illnesses such as stress as a result of discrimination, unemployment and lack of opportunities. Not surprisingly, more and more Somali women suffer from mental illness in the Western countries where they have settled as a result of family breakdown and lack of a support structure in the form of the traditional extended family which they were used to back in Somalia. Whereas the extended family support network offered them support, guidance and advice on bringing up their child(ren), family breakdown and all the ills that accompany it such as poverty, has trapped them in isolation, fear and social exclusion. To some Somali women seeking support for mental illness is more than a taboo, it is an indication that they are not fit parents and are not able to adequately deal with the responsibilities been a parent brings.
Many People who were asked about mental health for the purposes of this article were reluctant to speak about it. When asked if they knew what mental health was most said they did but could not define it. However, all were sure it involved a certain amount of mental imbalance in individuals who suffered from the illness. Lastly, when asked if they knew where to seek support and advice for mental illness if there ever was a need for it or if one generally needed information, most did not know. One person amusingly said, “The Police.”
Poor education about mental health and intolerance as a result of a macho culture has left many Somalis suffering from mental health in the West. Here in the UK where medication and treatment is free, it is rare to see Somalis seeking the support they are entitled to without been sectioned under the Mental Health Act. The fact is that mental health is an international problem which will or has the potential to effects everybody at some point in their life. It is not something that is unique to anybody or group and it is not something to be ashamed of. Many people recover from mental illness every year and go on to lead successful and fulfilling lives. The Somali community must recognize this and move away from this macho culture which does not allow for good members of the community to be mentally unwell. The western governments and local and international mental health charities must also do their part to tackle the ignorance and the stereotypes that embed this dangerous level of ignorance by providing better education and training to the Somali community. Furthermore, the training and employment of Somali mental health advocates, trainers and advisers will go a long way in bringing mental illness as an issue out of the shadows and into the centre of the Somali community’s minds.
Liban Obsiye is a Law graduate and community activist
Yusuf Salah is a mental Health trainee advocate in Bristol.