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Suffering in Silence: Arab Americans Struggle to Overcome Mental Health Stigmas

Posted: Dec 22, 2011

DEARBORN, Mich.--The issue of psychological problems has long been considered taboo within United States families and communities despite the prevalence of such issues and their devastating effects.

But many believe the stigma attached to those who are in need of or seek psychological help is even greater among members of the Arab American community.

As Dr. Kadir Ghulam, a psychiatrist at the APEX Center in Dearborn notes, the stereotypes surrounding psychology in Middle Eastern society are especially strong. In Jordan, for example, Ghulam reports that many facilities are open until late hours of the night during which they receive many of their patients.

The field of mental health is still relatively new, having begun its new era as a serious study in the 1950s, but the same problem remains: potential patients are afraid to seek treatment and often suffer in silence.

One 18-year-old girl from Dearborn Heights identifying herself as Layal told The Arab American News that she has battled serious emotional problems and suicidal tendencies.

Problems stemming from her father's verbal abuse of her mother have manifested themselves in her own self-esteem. She's also experienced "culture shock" after moving to Lebanon and then moving back, which has exacerbated her condition.

Layal said the deep pain she feels inside drives her to cut herself on her wrists in order to feel outside pain, which she said helps block out the painful memories and scenes she's experienced.

The idea entered her head after seeing it on a talk show, she said.

"I never thought I would be able to hurt myself that way," she said, "but I saw it so I thought, why not try it myself?"

Layal eventually came to her senses and realized she had a serious problem, which she tried to rectify by visiting a psychologist at a Dearborn community center.

But the treatment didn't last long because she said she felt she couldn't trust the doctor, who is also Arabic, not necessarily because of her lack of education, but mainly because she was afraid that word would get out in the local Arab American community, where information travels fast and everybody seems to know each other.

"Perhaps my judgment was unfair," Layal admits.

Currently, she gets support from her mother, but her father still considers her "crazy" and mentally ill, and the scars of her disorder remain.

"For me...I don't care anymore...I just wear a mask, to show everybody that I'm happy but deep insider, I'm suffering," she said.

According to Deputy Director of Mental Health, Carmen Sarafa, at the Arab American and Chaldean Council in Detroit, the number of people seeking psychological help is growing by the day.

She believes that it's possible that the stigma attached to those who receive help is starting to taper off a bit as more and more people are educated. Some of the numbers may be skewed by people who simply claim to be disabled in order to receive government benefits, but the numbers are growing for those seeking help. In 2009, about 550 patients between the ages of 18 and 40 sought help and for the older generation they were even higher, with about 800 people between the ages of 41 to 65 also looking for treatment through the ACC, which specializes in solving mental and behavioral problems.

"Before, patients didn't want to sit in the waiting room because they were afraid to be seen by others, but now the waiting room is a place for social communication among patients," she said.

Mental health issues aren't just limited to teenagers and other younger people, however.

A man named Mohamad, a 33-year-old highly-accomplished surgeon from Dearborn, has been struggling with bi-polar disorder that first started at age 21.

He often felt "down" and isolated himself from family and friends. He too sought treatment after his parents started to notice the behavioral changes he had gone through.

The family had originally been reluctant to encourage treatment because they feared he would get addicted to medication or suffer from side effects, but Mohamad has said that his symptoms have improved since he finally began treatment and suicidal thoughts have subsided.

"But I still get treatment without my family knowing because of...their over-exaggerated fears," he said. "I know close friends who refuse the idea of therapy (outright) however because they fear the stereotypes, that people will put them in the category of being crazy," he said.

Dr. Ghulam says that each case is different when it comes to mental disorders, some are emotional and some are mental, some based on trauma and some are easy to treat simply by giving the person an outlet to express their feelings, a solution that comes about through a few sessions of merely talking about their problems with a psychologist. Mental issues for example are caused by hormonal imbalances in the brain that can be corrected by medication. Other studies have shown that missing nutrients can help in issues such as bipolar disorder. Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found from sources like wild caught fish, are highly lacking in American diets and have been shown to help correct imbalances of brain chemicals.

Emotional issues usually require a different approach through therapy sessions, however.

Treatment options are numerous for mental health issues, but until more people learn to seek help, the problem will continue to spread.

A 16-year-old girl named Amani from Dearborn said she has tried to commit suicide by taking large amounts of painkillers, and constantly feels sadness. She feels bad for her family and feels as though they're forced to share her pain.

The issues were brought on by her father, she says, who left her mother for another woman.

Her brother encouraged her to seek therapy but her mother was not fond of the idea.

"It's not accepted," she said, "but everything has a solution...and even if that was the last solution, it should stay very secretive.

"I don't get why people are making a big deal out of it, I just need to count on God and everything will be fine," she said.

Dr. Ghulam knows that mental health issues can be seen, after all, he's seen it first-hand. But he says that the prevailing viewpoints on stereotypes must be changed first.

"People should realize that they're not 'crazy' if they seek help, this is a temporary condition that can be treated just the same as we would treat physical illnesses.”

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