Mental health was never a topic that was discussed frequently in my household, or at all.
I grew up in the Somali diaspora in north London after my family moved to the UK in 2002 from the Netherlands through secondary immigration.
My mother, like many Somali families, fled the civil war in the Nineties and was forced to resettle in a foreign land after factional infighting broke out in Somalia.
It was a brutal war, one that caused many to see their loved ones murdered before their eyes for simply belonging to the wrong clan.
Fearing for their lives, people fled on foot and paid smugglers for entry to foreign lands.
Now in the UK, Somali refugees are forced to grapple with the cultural and economic battles common to many who are forced to abandon their lives and seek refuge thousands of miles away from home. But in spite of that shared pain, in the Somali community, mental health goes largely unaddressed.
In my early teenage years, I would hear of a lady who lived in our neighbourhood.
My mother would occasionally check in on her and her children, and bring them food and provisions where needed. When I would ask what was going on, my mother would struggle to articulate the situation.
Other Somali women in our community would lower their voices whenever they mentioned her and would look almost scared of voicing her “symptoms” as if mental illness was contagious.
They would religiously bless themselves afterwards and quickly move on to different, lighter topics of conversation.
I don’t believe these women are to blame for their actions though, especially given the fact that these are people who have crossed borders to escape war, dealt with harsh socio-economic conditions in the UK and are still trying to adopt a new British-Somali identity. In light of that, it’s somewhat understandable, albeit upsetting, that learning about mental health may have been slightly neglected.
Language is a powerful tool and can help shape whole societies and their cultural norms and practices. In the Somali community, there is a lot of negative language surrounding mental health. It is not uncommon to be described as “crazy” and “sick in the head”. Often, the most reported cases of mental illnesses will be those observed in women.
The slurs also have a habit of taking a gendered turn, and the woman in question is often accused of being a “bad Muslim”, who is simply being punished by Allah for her sins. Other popular rhetoric, at least in my experience, includes calling people with mental health issues “lazy” and “attention-seeking”, meaning that in most cases, those suffering from mental health problems are rarely weaved into the Somali narrative at all.
My brother dealt with mental health issues for the majority of my childhood. He made numerous suicide attempts that resulted in him being cared for solely by our mother for months at a time. When I was 11, he broke both of his legs in one of his attempts to take his life and moved back into our familial home. My mother was left virtually isolated as most of the people in the Somali community looked on in pity and felt largely hopeless. It is only now in my adult years that I understand there is more that the local authorities could have done, and could do now to help.
I know there are some organisations looking to work closely with local mosques to help dispel myths surrounding mental health, but I can’t help but feel that the Somali community has been largely untargeted.
I am aware that there are cultural norms and practises that have survived for generations and I am also aware of the gravity of the task, but how many more families like my own need to suffer before we have a collective movement? There have been a handful of reports, but none of them have done any extensive research into the Somali community and its relationship with mental health.
The Somali diaspora in the UK identifies heavily with Islam and, in my experience, the answer to all mental health questions has been prayer and tightening your relationship with the deen (religion). A popular analysis of someone suffering from an illness is that they are possessed by Jinn (demons) or that they are dealing with Allah’s wrath from their previous sins.
This is interesting because in Islam, taking care of one’s health is one of the most important tasks placed upon Muslims. The hadeeth (teachings of the prophet Muhammed) clearly states that “Allah brought down the disease and he has also brought down the cure”, which can be applied to mental health as well as physical health. But misinterpretation can often lead to a real lack of understanding of the actualities of mental health within the Somali community, leaving a large section of its most vulnerable people feeling marginalised and excluded.
As I’ve said, more outreach programmes specifically targeted towards the Somali community, workshops held in schools and even more literature surrounding mental health written in Somali in GPs would help to tackle this issue moving forward, especially in terms of educating the older generations on mental health and allowing for greater communication about these issues. But overall, I believe the onus lies on the younger generations, including my own, to spearhead this movement and talk openly about mental health. It only has to start with a conversation.