Shame, guilt, yes, I have felt that way before. I wonder if my culture has stopped me from supporting others with mental illness. Many of my friends would come to me for help or just to talk. They were either too scared or not willing to open up to their parents—and that was just the beginning. 

Although I’ve never been diagnosed with any sort of mental illness, many of my closest friends have. I’ve had feelings of stress and anxiety brought on by the unique challenges to immigrant life in Canada. 

In my experience, mental illness is something that many people underestimate, yet it can have one of the biggest impacts on someone’s life. As an immigrant to this country, I had never heard of mental illness or mental health. I didn’t know taking care of your emotional and or psychological health was a thing. I don’t recall people ever talking to me about it, and if they did, I’m sure I didn’t take it seriously as I should have. 

“Mental illness is very much present in immigrant families, and migration actually increases the risk of mental illness.”

Coming from an African background, it’s my experience that my culture doesn’t take mental health seriously. It’s not a common topic to talk about. Whenever I brought it up, the people around me would just laugh it off or say, “there’s no such thing as mental illness,” and that was the end of the conversation.

Many immigrants do not believe in the concept of mental health. They see it more as a myth.  A study by Mary V. Seeman, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, explains how mental illness is very much present in immigrant families, and migration actually increases the risk of mental illness. 

Many immigrants go through several events before leaving their country. In several cases those events are the main reason why they decided to leave their county of origin; for instance, war and genocide. That specific trauma is referred to as pre-migration and inter-migration trauma. 

Some deal with non-acceptance by the new country’s primary residents and are exposed to stigma and discrimination in the host country. These are just two examples of the many stressors and traumas one goes through while relocating. 

When I first came to Calgary in 2014, it was hard for me to integrate. After living in Montreal for 18 years, I wasn’t sure how to interact with my Calgary peers. My English was OK, but not great. I would mix up French and English words from time-to-time, and although many thought it was funny, I didn’t. 

The worst was oral presentations. I still remember my first oral presentation in Grade 11, my French accent was so strong that I would panic before I got in front of the class. My heart would beat so hard, and my legs would shake—I felt like I did not belong there. I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t know if I was just shy or nervous. The feeling of panic while presenting, started to happen more and more often. Was this something I should talk to someone about? If so, who?

Since I was unsure if these symptoms were considered a mental illness, I wanted to talk about it. I wanted to know more about what was happening to me. But I was still faced with a problem. In my family, mental illness is not a topic to bring to the dinner table. It’s something you keep to yourself, and I started to wonder why.

“The lack of awareness and sensitivity about this topic is still high … People are not really aware of things that could actually be regarded as mental health illnesses or challenges.”

Abiodun Odueke

I wasn’t the only one who was trying to understand this. Abiodun Odueke, the community liaison and system navigator of the Family Resource Network at the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association, also noticed a lack of sensitivity when it came to talking about mental health in immigrant communities. Odueke is currently working on a project for immigrants, young and old, to open up about mental health and create awareness.

“So what we found majorly is the lack of awareness and sensitivity about this topic is still high, and lots of things are being dropped off. People are not really aware of things that could actually be regarded as mental health illnesses or challenges,” says Odueke.

I always wondered where this lack of sensitivity came from; why we as immigrants were not as open as we should be. Odueke says that cultural shame was the main reason immigrants were not willing to talk about it in many cases. 

“I don’t want people, even those that have help, [to feel] the shame that someone from my culture is going to find out seeking help in this. So most people, when it comes to [these] populations—stigma, shame and to some of them, these things are a really big deal,” she says.

One of my closest friends, Hannia Iqbal has been dealing with mental illness for a couple of years now. Also coming from an immigrant background, she had difficulty opening up to her parents. 

“My dad, he’s kind of like ‘anxiety doesn’t exist. Just don’t be stressed.’ Just things like that where he just says, like ‘that’s not even a thing, like just get over it.’ But he wouldn’t realize what he’s saying. And you’re just kind of like trying to explain to him, and you just kind of give up on trying to explain to your parents that this is actually a thing,” she says. 

For her, the best thing to do was share these feelings and experiences with her peers, so they could try to help each other. 

But as Odueke mentioned, it will take time for some parents to be able to understand the real definition of mental illness and not describe it as just a myth.