Since Middle Eastern culture prioritizes academic achievement, many Middle Eastern high school students struggle to please their parents who are obsessed with their child getting into Ivy League colleges — anything less is unacceptable. I, along with my other Middle Eastern friends, are especially stressed out about the decreased admission rates to top colleges.
Our struggle with mental health is getting worse. According to Arab News, mental illness is a widespread concern among the youth in the Middle East and North Africa. Nevertheless, fewer than half the respondents have sought out mental health treatment. One of the biggest sources of stress stems from academic pressure.
To make matters worse, I have heard extended family members on my Syrian side perceive mental illness as a joke and even a form of weakness. I have been told to “tough it out” whenever I am stressed out about school. Mental health is regarded in such a negative light that no one talks about it within my family.
The stigma of mental health is so strong that in many parts of the Middle East, mentally ill individuals still receive the dangerous and inhumane treatment of electroshock therapy (ECT) to get rid of their depression and anxiety. ECT is known to lead to memory loss and other cognition problems. Despite ECT’s ethical and medical concerns, this practice is still available in the United States Emirates and other Middle Eastern countries.
While America offers ample mental health resources compared to other countries, Middle Eastern American students still struggle greatly because they are not encourage to talk about mental illness with their parents. Middle Eastern parents having a child that is mentally ill is viewed as a result of bad parenting.
Mental illness is seen in this negative light because it does not fit in the cultural standards of what a proper Arab should be like.
In an essay published in Henry Ford College’s Looking Glass titled “The Mental Health Stigma in the Arab Community,” author Malack Jallad argues that young Arabs are afraid that talking about mental illness will make them a “disgrace” to their families, which forces many Middle Eastern American students to internalize their mental health concerns. Furthermore, many students go so far as to deny their mental health conditions with the fear of being mocked and stigmatized.
It is a shame that we feel this way. Many young family friends have personally confided in me regarding their fight against depression. Since they were afraid that their Arab parents, aunts and uncles would shun them for having mental health struggles, they chose to talk to me instead. During many of these conversations, I have heard so many Arab teenagers express their anxiety about their future and even of the perceived futility of life. Some of them even admitted to harming themselves because the pressure was just too much.
There needs to be more mental health support within high schools, especially for students of color, such as Middle Eastern students. Since many Middle Eastern American students lack family support for their mental health struggles, it is up to their high schools to take a stand and provide adequate mental health resources to their students.
Sadly, it seems to be a complicated issue when it comes to increasing mental health resources within high schools. While legislation to expand mental health resources within Connecticut’s network of school-based clinics recently passed in the House of Representatives, this plan was met with resistance within the town of Killingly, Connecticut. Some parents claimed that this action impeded on their rights as parents.
What does this all mean? It means that mental illness is still heavily stigmatized not only within the Middle Eastern communities, but still throughout the United States. In order to provide necessary mental health resources to struggling students of color, there needs to be more urgency to destigmatize mental health within our community.