Even under the best of circumstances, it’s challenging for immigrants to adjust to a new life in a new country. And when immigrants have fled countries roiled by violence and war, the upheaval and stress in their lives is even more profound. Among refugees, about 10 to 40 percent may experience post-traumatic stress disorder and 5 to 15 percent may have depression, according to the Refugee Health Technical Assistance Center.
Language and cultural differences, however, can be barriers for immigrants who need mental health counseling and treatment, and the stigma around mental health can be hard to counter. Fortunately, organizations are removing those barriers and helping immigrants find support.
A circle of support
The Iraqi Mutual Aid Society (IMAS), an organization supporting immigrants and refugees in their transition to life in Chicago, is focused on fostering well-being. Their support has particularly helped one local immigrant, Ekram Hanna, who has gone on to help remove the stigma around mental health in her community. She’s now creating a safe environment for other immigrants to share their struggles and find their voice.
When Hanna, her husband and her two children immigrated to the United States in 2012, they left their family, friends and religious community behind in Iraq. Once settled in Chicago, they had to assimilate into a vastly different culture.
“It was a hard transition,” Hanna says.
Language barriers, cultural differences and loneliness can lead to depression. It took Hanna about a year to get her bearings, and the absence of family and friends she could lean on for support made the transition even more challenging.
Hanna’s experience made her realize how important connecting with others in a similar situation can be. She joined IMAS in 2017 as a community outreach manager in order to help other women who were adjusting to life in the U.S.
After she was hired, she quickly organized a monthly support group for women that now consists of about 90 women from Iraq, Syria and other countries. Simply talking to other women who are going through similar experiences can be immensely helpful, she says.
“The first thing that can change their life is finding someone who encourages them,” Hanna says.
At the IMAS support group, the women learn practical skills like how to use public transportation and open a bank account. They also discuss issues related to their emotional well-being and safety, such as depression, anxiety and domestic violence. Those topics need to be presented in a culturally appropriate way, Hanna explains.
“We let them know about their rights, encourage them to know more about themselves and be strong,” Hanna says.
Many of the women in the support group come from cultures where mental health disorders have a stigma, which makes it hard for them to admit they are feeling depressed or anxious, she says.
“Because of our culture and the community we used to live in, people expect you to always to be strong and to smile,” Hanna says. “That’s why a lot of people act like they are okay when they are not.”
Read more in ChicagoHealthOnline.com.