This was originally posted on the Best Starts for Kids blog.
To honor BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Month, we are featuring a story from a young person who explores the impacts of mental health challenges and the public health crisis of systemic racism.
Across our region and country, young people are navigating the ramifications of racism and the pandemic that impact their emotional and mental well-being. At Best Starts we work with community partners and young people to reduce stigma around mental health; reinforce compassion, connection, and care in communities. Storytelling is a powerful part of the process in systemic healing.
Below is a story from Adar Abdi, a 17-year-old Somali American in White Center. She shares her experience navigating the barriers in the mental health care system for her community and how she’s advocating to build more equitable systems.
Like so many first-generation Somali Americans, I struggle with grasping what it means to be Somali living in America. In my community, I hear about Somalia before the civil war and Somalia as a beautiful and bustling country. You might think that because these families face immense trauma: like fleeing from war and raising families in a country where they are now a minority, that would provide plenty of space for therapy and healthy discussions about trauma.
But, like many immigrants, Black, and brown, and low-income communities, we have few mental resources and an over-diagnosing from providers. This leads to community taboos around talking about mental health.
Like many Somali youth, I was taught mental health challenges could only be an issue for the privileged white people and that we as minorities are not granted the same validation for our feelings. We could not be looked at as weak, and we could not risk failure.
The barriers institutional racism creates
How institutional racism works is that white and privileged people may be able to take medication for mental health, and that’s perfectly fine. They can speak on it publicly with fewer consequences than people of color. But when immigrant, Black, brown, and low-income people speak about using medication for mental health the perception can be “Look at them, trying to be on drugs.” I think that’s even why my family has struggled to try medication. Another concern for our family and community is that we are scared providers may over-diagnose us because of the community we come from. If a provider can’t effectively talk to us, because English isn’t my parents’ first language, how do we understand whether something needs medication or just talk-therapy?
Another thing I struggle with as a person who comes from many different marginalized communities, is the fear of being too needy because of all the different identities I experience oppression around. Who exactly am I speaking on behalf of? Am I speaking about mental health experiences as a Black person? Someone with immigrant parents? As a young person? My religion? As a woman? How do these identities go together and how is my mental health affected? And it’s hard for people with more privileged backgrounds to wrap their head around people coming from like, multiple communities that intersect.
The equity we build through multicultural, multiracial power-sharing
We need to make resources and opportunities more accessible for first-generation Americans. This means translators at events, having someone who can culturally relate with youth about their experience, and lastly, we need understanding not judgment from physicians and other healthcare personnel. Judging families for not getting help sooner or faulting them for not seeing symptoms of mental health does not solve the issue but makes more spaces hostile.
One way we can make things better is by having more immigrant, Black, and people with multicultural backgrounds in power. Through the Legislative Youth Advisory Council we wrote, lobbied, and passed a bill around mental health for students. This bill gives students the ability to have excused absences for mental health. Having young people from different backgrounds, including me, was essential to passing this legislation. Every single person’s story is different. But I think once you have representation of all our communities, you can trust that somebody can speak on behalf of you, behalf of our communities.
Read from our May Mental Health Month series:
Crisis resources for young people and their families:
Children’s Crisis Outreach Services (CCORS), 206-461-3222
Call a crisis line such as King County’s Crisis Line 206-461-3222; the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-8255; Trevor Project for LGBTQ youth at 1-866-488-7386; or text “HOME” to 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line.