An order of depression with a side of courage? Hold the stigma


Suad Adam

Community leader and mental health advocate, Imad Mohamed came to South High to discuss depression and the benefits of seeking treatment for mental illnesses. Having members of the Somali community come to participate in Silver Ribbon Campaign (SRC) meetings has helped many Somali students at South open up about mental health. However, there is still a lot of stigma about mental health within our community.

“Wa kibiirtaay. Quraan saar aa ubaahantahay” (You’re acting up. You need to be prayed upon). This is a phrase that I often hear from the older generation whenever I choose to express our feelings hardships in life.

Mental health in many Somali households has been stigmatized. It’s thought that many mental illnesses — such as depression, anxiety, BPD, eating disorders and more — just simply do not exist. I myself have expressed my concerns with mental health, only to be looked as a joke. Either I need to find a husband to make me happy and put me in check, or I’m simply just nuts. Mental health has been condemned from generation to generation to the point that people have been walking on eggshells around the phrase because it simply starts off with the word “mental.”

When I was eight, my mom had a tumor as large as a baby’s head — at least 10 pounds.  It was successfully surgically removed. But ever since then, the hardship and all its baggage has made a home in my mind and opened doors to anxiety, low self-esteem, sadness.

Trying my hardest to keep a poker face when my mom’s illness progressively got worse was difficult. Being the baby in the family definitely hasn’t helped my case when I cried like a baby too.

I felt forced to grow up fast, almost as if my childhood was thrown away. My mom went from two to sometimes three jobs just to buy me anything I wanted so she could see my siblings and I crack a smile. But for some reason, I was and still am too afraid to display that smile because my pride is in the way.

As much as I hate to say it, I wish there’d be one day I won’t have to help my beautiful mother, take her medicine or cook a meal for her. The angry attitude I hate that erupts inside me when my mom calls my name is honestly easier to express than to address what’s really on my chest. Yet in reality that mindset of “thuggin it out,” “biting your tongue,” “putting on a poker face,” or whatever you want to call it to mask the hardship you’re dealing with, doesn’t solve anything. You won’t be your happiest without taking care of YOU first.

Mental health is an ongoing struggle. Now that I am seventeen, a very close friend of mine went through the same thing as my mom did. Although her tumor thankfully turned out benign, surgery was a big deal. Pacing around the cold hospital for two hours before walking into my friend’s hospital room with a blanket in my arms was honestly the most gut-wrenching thing ever.

It’s hard to prioritize self care when many of us had families who survived war and immigrated to this country with little to no knowledge of English nor money not to mention. You aren’t allowed to feel anything but happy and grateful because you have so so much more resources than the older generation. “Why must you be sad? Look at all the privileges you have” they’ll say.

Senior Anab Omar shared that being a woman makes it even harder to deal with mental health. “As a female in my community I feel like we’re ‘allowed’ to cry. But just cry. Nothing else. If you tell someone you’re depressed ‘you haven’t been praying’. It’s a vicious cycle we’re stuck in. I feel like men in general are taught to be big and bad and tough which why they don’t speak on matters like this it’s seen as weak. But women are trying to change this stigma. Especially the younger generation.”

South High has about 400+ Somali students. Having a social worker that looks like us and talks like us — Mrs. Salma Hussein — has really helped students like myself gain an understanding on the importance of mental health and the uniqueness Somali students bring to South’s mental health awareness group, the Silver Ribbon Campaign (SRC). Gradually, SRC has had an impact on the Somali community by having various Somali community members and mental health advocates coming to South High and speaking to the students.

Mental health stigma still must be improved. “I would love to see more young men and women speak on their mental health and break the stigma on mental health. I am really hopeful insha allah [“if God wills] in the near future we will have more people talking openly about what they’re doing to be healthy which will hopefully then reduce the stigma on mental health,” said Hussein.

Muridi wishes for the same change. “I believe that bringing more awareness [to] mental health in our community will be a small but important step we must take so that people aren’t afraid to ask for help. I believe that mental health can take a toll on your life at any age and it shouldn’t be overlooked depending on how long you lived to experience life.”

Hussein said that she “[tries] to accommodate mental health by letting children know that it is normal to have ups and downs. Mental health is about taking care of yourself. Mental health is about being centered.” Omar said, “I know I’m going to make a difference by furthering my education. I’m working to become a psychologist in the near future. I’m hoping with this opportunity I’ll be the change I’ve always wanted to see with self care and self love.”

I believe, by addressing what exactly mental health is, the Somali culture can normalize the term and change the narrative to focus on self care, self love, and self appreciation.