The Bridge Between: Elections matter, but mental health matters more

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We don’t talk about it enough, therefore we must continuously remind ourselves that taking care of our mental health should be our top priority, especially nowadays. 

Even before 2020 began, many Americans of all ages had mental health conditions,  alcohol or drug issues that were not getting the attention and the care that they deserve.

Now, nine months into the coronavirus pandemic, five months into a major social justice movement, two weeks away from a national election, and with school starting, hurricanes blowing, wildfires burning, and the economy slumping, it’s a fair bet that many people are struggling with mental health concerns.

As a black Muslim immigrant woman living in the diaspora, I know the feeling of a tremendous amount of uncertainty way too well. When my family first moved to America in 2006, not a day went by that we didn’t feel a vast amount of anxiety. We still do today. Not knowing what we can expect for our future, or the futures of our family and friends has been truly stressful. 

Despite all the worry I still feel like I was able to accomplish my goals, regardless of the fact that my parents came from very modest backgrounds. Neither of them graduated from college or even spoke English at the time of their immigration. I am able to grasp the opportunities my parents worked so hard to provide. However, my quintessential hard-working immigrant success story still does not address a very important fact that I live in constant fear and anxiety. The mental health challenges that immigrants face are part of my story and must be addressed. 

From my experience, immigrant communities encounter many challenges including discrimination, language difficulties, less access to health care due to lower-paying jobs without benefits, and visa issues, among many others. There is also the added challenge of isolation from the larger national community. Many immigrant families live within or very close to their immigrant community, which may reinforce a sense of separation.

Coping with these challenges can lead to mental health issues or mental illness, particularly for those with a pre-existing biological vulnerability to mental illness. 

At the time of my parents’ immigration, mental health education in their homeland was non-existent. There was rarely any discussion of mental health. When they arrived in the United States, they could not speak English. There were no Arabic-speaking mental health-care providers or doctors to talk about the challenges they were encountering.  

In some immigrant communities, mental health concerns are actively ignored and people are discouraged from seeking help. Their reluctance is often out of fear that others might find out, or due to high treatment costs. Some cultures also have alternative treatment approaches to mental health care such as herbal remedies or spiritual practices. Some communities use culturally rooted practices of mindfulness and meditations or religious practices such as prayer.

In the Sudanese community where I grew up, mental illness was highly stigmatized. Women and men were reluctant to speak about it. If and when women expressed emotional concerns, they were quickly dismissed. Men never talked about emotional concerns since community perception was that strong men should not be emotional. Talking about mental health outside the home was prohibited. Family members also heavily gossiped in our close-knit community, causing people to be guarded or secretive. 

Growing up, I never heard anyone in the Sudanese community talk about mental health, including my parents. Parents can play an important role in the mental health literacy of their children, but often immigrant parents are not in a position to help.

Tuesday, Nov. 4, is Election Day. This election will carry critical implications for health-care coverage, access to mental health treatment, and continued assistance for veterans and the elderly. I urge everyone to know where the candidates stand on mental health care before voting.

But regardless of one’s political views, mental illness is something that affects us all. One in four adults will experience a mental health problem each year but sadly only one-third will seek treatment. Early identification through mental health screening combined with follow-up treatment can make a huge difference. 

The importance of mental health awareness extends beyond Election Day. It’s never too late to help educate yourself and those who are around you on the effects of mental health in the community and the benefits of improving mental health care. 

Ekhlas Ahmed is a human rights activist and educator who lives in Windham. She is the executive director of the nonprofit Chance to Advance, which raises awareness about Darfur and implements initiatives to make education more feasible for all. Follow her on Facebook and contact her at ekhlas.ahmed@yahoo.com.