To engage broader communities and understand their experience surrounding mental health stigma, we connected with Cultural Brokers from Watercourse Counseling Center (WCC) and the Somali American Parent Association (SAPA). Cultural Brokers act as a bridge between the community and service providers. Offering a unique perspective, they help provide contextual insights. Dr. Saida Adbi, PhD, MSW, LICSW, CIRCLE Project Director and Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota School of Social Work, emphasizes the role of Cultural Brokers in facilitating this understanding.
Cultural Brokers Ayan Abdullahi, Anisa Ali, Kubra Bashari, and Zahra Wahidy shared their unique experiences in a series of interviews shared below. We invite you to listen as these Somali and Afghan women share their own experience with stigma, how we can show support, and bring awareness to mental health.
At the generational divide and prevalent stigma
The complexity between different generations is expressed by each cultural broker, explaining that the stigma surrounding mental health is more prevalent in the older generation, but the younger generation is much more likely to talk or want to talk about mental health.
Ayan Abdullahi, a cultural broker at WCC, explains the reluctance in sharing mental health struggles among families, often due to cultural perceptions. She notes that discussions about mental health are often dichotomized – seen as either extremely bad or unmanageable. Older generations primarily focused on survival during times of war. Abdullahi went on, “What you would hear is ‘we went through so many challenges, how can you have problems now that you’re here? We went through war, famine,’ and so on. And so the way mental health is discussed is, ‘it’s not something that affects us’ but there’s empathy and sympathy for other people that are affected by it.”
As the cultural brokers shared, there’s a disconnect between the two generations. This contrasts between the younger generation’s opportunity for introspection and self-awareness. Zahra Wahidy, another cultural broker at WCC, notes a guarded approach to discussing mental health with her parents, But, “I am open to talk about mental health with my siblings – I think they are a little more open to that.”
Additionally, there is a general misunderstanding on what mental health means between the generations, which is why the stigma unfortunately continues to course through the community. One thing is certain: the younger generation is not backing down on continuing the conversation and encouraging the community to talk to each other about mental health.
Generational trauma and its impact
Generational trauma is at the forefront of discussions surrounding mental health. Generational trauma is when difficult and challenging events happen to our parents, grandparents, or ancestors and can be passed down to younger generations unintentionally. Talking about it and supporting each other can help everyone learn to heal together.
Anisa Ali, a cultural broker at SAPA, reflected on how families often attempt to shield their children from their past trauma while unknowingly passing on generational trauma. “I think education in the area of how people respond to trauma–generational trauma. And how that affects babies, kids, teenagers – how that shows up differently in the life cycle of the human being,” shared Ali. “I think that is very important in making that connection on what that means.”
The cultural brokers have highlighted some ways to support the community, foster understanding and address the stigma associated with mental health in the community.
What supporting community can look like
The cultural brokers shared different ways that we can support their communities in addressing the stigma around mental health, dismantling barriers, and sparking conversations. They expressed how barriers in language and understanding can stifle discussions surrounding mental health. In order to open discussions, there must first be an understanding of what mental health means.
Zahra Wahidy noted, “Trauma is something that maybe makes sense in English – but in my community when you are talking about trauma… they don’t have any idea about trauma. ‘What is trauma?’ Even if we translate it in our language – it does not make sense for us.”
The English words we use can be a barrier in opening conversations. Mental health organizations and practitioners serving English Language Learners need to add an intersectional lens to their communications. A way to do that is to remember that the English words used are not always easily translated or understood in the native language of the individual. Using simple language, defining the English word in different ways (for example, listing the different symptoms), or using different words that are already in the individual’s native language are some things that can help create understanding surrounding mental health. This also includes providing information and resources in other mediums other than written. Other times, information is better received and understood through verbal means because “not everybody can read the language,” as shared by Ali.
Ali continued, “The stigma will never go away to some extent because it’s so embedded in our culture. But the more people talk about it, the more they don’t get a harsh reaction.”
Providing a safe and comfortable environment for people to build connections and openly discuss mental health is integral in minimizing the stigma. The cultural brokers expressed that there is positive change happening in the community, including the religious community, and it all starts with having open discussions with one another.
“Much more religious or faith communities are getting involved in letting people know ‘you need to seek help,’” said Ali. “People are making that connection – that you can go seek mental health and still do your prayer and trust in God. It is very hard to admit that you are struggling mentally because there is a sense of vulnerability that comes with it.”
Thank you to our cultural brokers for sharing their perspectives and for their continued work within the community. Discussions on minimizing the stigma around mental health are continuous, and we look forward to working together for our collective healing.
Quotes have been edited for clarity and length.