Mental Health Trends in Arab Americans: Depression, Anxiety and Challenging the Stigma
By: Carrie Stewart / Arab America Contributing Writer
As mental health is discussed more and more in the media, the healthcare space, and in society in general, it is important to consider how our background and ethnicity can affect our well-being. Many studies have looked at mental illnesses in a variety of ethnic groups. Unfortunately, Arab Americans tend to be an overlooked minority when it comes to this research.
The limited research that does exist however, shows a high prevalence of anxiety and depression coupled with low participation in mental health support services. This article will examine the causes, and commonality of mental health issues among Arab Americans and will contain information on support services.
Mental Health Perception among Arab individuals:
It is first important to consider Arab Americans’ perception of mental health and illness. Clearly, there is some negative stigma and emotion associated with the topic. In fact, studies have shown that Arab families perceive taking care of family members with mental illness with “fear, loss, embarrassment, and disgrace of family reputations.”
The Arab world, with its Islamic culture, believes that mental health is linked to religion. Thus, maintaining a good relationship with God should be sufficient to maintain a healthy mental state. People are also encouraged not to discuss their problems with others. It has even been found that many Arab Americans think antidepressants will lead to addiction.
It is very common for Arab Americans to keep their struggles to themselves. This may be because of cultural norms and can be particularly difficult for children of immigrants because it can be hard to reach out for help or talk about their struggles because these struggles feel like a privilege and trivial compared to the turmoil their parents and/or grandparents have endured. On top of this, even if someone wants to talk to a professional, they may not be able to afford to do so and even if they could afford it, therapists in the United States may have a hard time understanding Arab culture.
Depression Among Arab Americans:
Studies have found that up to 60% of Arab American participants struggled with depression. Refugees reported higher levels of depression than immigrants or U.S born Arab Americans. Unsurprisingly, those who reported political violence and religious persecution as reasons for immigration had the highest level of depression.
One study found that 14% of Arab American adolescents participating in the study had moderate or severe depression. On top of this, this age group is one of the least likely to seek help. Within this group subjects who reported dissatisfaction with their current weight were more likely to also have depression. This prevalence of depression could be a result of several things: the difficult and tense political climate, reduced support from friends, lack of health care, bullying, discrimination, body image issues, discomfort, hate crimes, and several other triggers that Arab Americans face daily.
Anxiety Among Arab Americans:
Another common mental disorder among Arab Americans is anxiety. One study found that one fourth of participants had severe anxiety disorder. Similar to depression, studies have found that refugees report higher levels of anxiety than immigrants or U.S born Arab Americans.
In the past few years, the COVID-19 pandemic likely contributed to this anxiety. On top of fear about illness and the shutdown, Arab Americans may be worried about their family in America as well as their family in their home country.
Anxiety levels among Arab Americans additionally increased after 9/11. This is not surprising given the increase in discrimination, hate crimes, and general opposition towards the minority group that preceded the event.
Overall, rates of anxiety and depression among Arab Americans are higher than the general public and other minority groups.
Support Services Available for Arab Americans: The Disappointing Truth
One study showed that “whites from the Middle East were twice as likely to report serious psychological distress when compared to whites of European descent.” However, Middle-Easterners suffering from psychological distress were less likely to have seen a mental health professional within the last 12 months.”
So what can we do to improve the fact that this population is so susceptible to mental illness but so rarely getting proper care? It is important that services (such as therapy, support groups, medicine, etc.) are promoted, and available particularly for Arab Americans especially because this has the potential to encourage more participation and conversations about the topic despite the hesitancy that currently exists.
There are some support services out there. For example, organizations like the Arab-American Family Support Center offer mental health counseling services that can be accessed at low costs. Also, the American Muslim Health Professionals organization offers helpful mental health articles and newsletters.
Overall, however, there are not a ton of resources specifically for Arab Americans. On top of this Arab Americans have a high prevalence of a lack of health insurance, living below the poverty line, and lower home ownership levels than non-Hispanic Whites.
In conclusion, to help improve mental health among the Arab American population it is important that more affordable services are offered, and of course the stigma is broken so that children and adults are more comfortable accepting help that can be given to them.
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