National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Cross-Cultural Connection

Members of the NAMI Connection support group for Arab women in Salt Lake City.

By Taylor Poor, NAMI Education Program Coordinator

For the members of the NAMI Connection support group for Arab women in Salt Lake City, talking about their mental health experiences in a group setting isn’t just a question of opening up. The women who have joined the NAMI Connection group come from countries where they were “second class citizens … often unable to speak and/or exercise rights that come for granted to you and me,” according to Jacqueline Gómez-Arias, NAMI Utah’s Programs Coordinator and Diversity Outreach Coordinator. These women “do not always feel comfortable raising [an] opinion outside their homes,” she added, especially “when there are men around.” Ms. Gómez-Arias knew that if she wanted to reach and support these women with the mental health resources NAMI offers, she had to provide a safe and comfortable space where they felt empowered and independent.

A conversation in early 2012 with Dr. Teresa Molina, a professor at the University of Utah who was at that time working with victims of war and torture, inspired Ms. Gómez-Arias to reach out to Arab women. Together, she and Dr. Molina set up a partnership between NAMI Utah and University Neighborhood Partners (UNP), a community-based research program associated with the University of Utah. Ms. Gómez-Arias’s role on the County Office of Diversity Affairs Health Committee led to the office’s sponsorship of a mental health awareness and outreach event, to attempt to bring women together and demonstrate the NAMI Connection support group model.

Since that first meeting in May 2012, the members of the Connection support group have discussed the difficulties of immigration, depression, feelings of powerlessness and even thoughts of suicide, stemming from the challenges of displacement, adjusting to a new system and grieving for past losses. Ms. Gómez-Arias emphasizes how important it has been to allow the women in the group “to experience the feeling of helping each other through their own experiences, then let them decide if they would like to continue with [the] group, …offering only our support in facilitating it.” The group has never faced any scrutiny due to the fact that it only accepts women; no member, or non-member, has ever challenged its women-only status. It’s “not even a question,” said Ms. Gómez-Arias. “There [would] be an issue if men enter the group and probably lots of questions.”

Could NAMI learn from the success of Ms. Gómez-Arias’s outreach efforts in its organization-wide attempts to expand the diversity of its programs? Translating outreach material, something the NAMI Multicultural Action Center and the NAMI Education Department have been working on, is a “good step,” said Ms. Gómez-Arias, “but is only opening the door. We need to go in, sit down, have dinner and listen, in other words be their friends and then offer our help after gaining trust and genuine understanding.”

“We all prefer to use our own language and feel more comfortable with people who share our … culture and experiences,” she continued. Training bilingual facilitators and coordinators could be helpful in reaching out to diverse populations, while “housing the groups in a familiar place, … like a resettlement or community agencies,” might temper the difficulties of introducing sensitive, unfamiliar topics like mental illness.

Moreover, “refugees are often victims [of] war, displacement and torture…. [They] are now rebuilding their lives…in survival mode. There is so much to learn and do before they ever think of taking a course for two and a half hours once a week.” In other words, a class or a support group might not be a number one priority for many families who are concerned about basic necessities like transportation and employment. For example, Ms. Gómez-Arias explained that the primary reason for families’ lack of participation in support groups is a need for child care. She suggests approaching immigrants who have already lived in the United States for three or more years, and who may therefore be more inclined to think about mental health and NAMI support groups. Volunteering is not a typical concept in many other cultures, especially when a family’s primary needs have not been met.

In order to effectively address the mental health concerns of the communities NAMI seeks to reach, we must ask them where they’re coming from, and what they really need. After that, Ms. Gómez-Arias reminds us, the cycle continues on its own: “If we help them, they will in turn help the newcomer.”