Mental health has long been stigmatized as an individual issue that one needs to work through on their own accord. As time has passed, society has begun to break down these harmful ideologies and prioritized the importance of taking care of your mind, the same way you would your physical body when it’s sick or injured. Dr. Haniya Halim is a psychiatrist who’s dedicated herself to destigmatizing the negative connotations regarding mental health while creating safe spaces for those who are looking to better their lives.
The stigma against mental health and treatment has existed for decades. Today, in many parts of the world, it’s become not only more acceptable, but necessary to discuss one’s struggles openly in order to get to a place of well-being and fulfillment. However, there are still many cultures and societies that view mental illness as a personal journey that shouldn’t be discussed; that view mental illness as a personal weakness or vulnerability.
Dr. Haniya Halim M.D., is a psychiatrist who’s spent her blossoming career speaking up for those who suffer with mental illness but feel like they can’t discuss it or advocate for themselves. While it may be hard to change the entire world’s perceptions on seeking help for these very real illnesses, she knows that change starts at a community level, and that’s exactly what she’s been able to accomplish.
“Mental health has always been a very prominent issue in our society. What’s changed now is we’ve entered ‘crisis mode’ in terms of the level of those struggling and the access to the means to hurt one’s self or others. Fortunately with that comes more attention on the issue itself, but the way our society has embraced technology and other factors has left us exposed to a level of trauma and disaster that we would’ve never known about pre-social media,” Dr. Halim explained.
According to an academic paper titled Global Prevalence of Depressive and Anxiety Symptoms in Children and Adolescents During COVID-19: A Meta-analysis: “Across 29 samples and 80 879 youth, the pooled prevalence of clinically elevated depression and anxiety symptoms was 25.2% and 20.5%, respectively. Thus, 1 in 4 youth globally are experiencing clinically elevated depression symptoms, while 1 in 5 youth are experiencing clinically elevated anxiety symptoms. A comparison of these findings to pre-pandemic estimates (12.9% for depression and 11.6% for anxiety) suggests that youth mental health difficulties during the COVID-19 pandemic have likely doubled.”
“The brain is an organ like any other. When you have an issue with your heart, or break a bone, you treat it with medication and surgery. Mental health is a disease of the brain that should be treated like any other in terms of acknowledgement that it’s a real issue impacting the physical and emotional parts of the body.”
Dr. Halim’s personal experience growing up as a Muslim Indian American has shaped her perspective when it comes to treating mental illness.
“My parents immigrated from India to the US in the 1980’s. Within Indian culture as well as many others, there is a stigma against seeking treatment for mental illness. I grew up hearing stories about various family members and the ways in which they struggled to obtain treatment or navigate the health care process. From an early age I was not only able to learn about what mental health/illness is, but also the differences that seeking out help can actually make.
As generations passed and the taboo on mental illness decreased, it became far easier for individuals in my family to seek out and access treatment.
Dr. Halim continued to observe the differences in cultures, religions, and societal standards that certain communities uphold when it comes to mental health and how to treat it as she progressed throughout her education.
“I saw similar problems [regarding the stigmas surrounding mental illness] in my community here in the U.S. I identify as a Muslim American and within the larger Muslim community there are a multitude of cultures and ethnicities represented. Across many of those cultures, the same phenomenon is observed; mental illness isn’t taken as seriously as physical illness.
When someone states that they have problems with depression or anxiety, it’s not viewed as something that should be fixed with the help of a doctor, it’s seen as something that you can handle and overcome yourself. The mentality that ‘it’s all in your head’ is unfortunately still a widely accepted mindset in many different parts of the world.
In certain cultures with a strong religious influence, if someone was to say ‘I’m struggling’ they would be told to pray, speak to religious leaders and have faith in a higher being to guide them through it. People are taught not to discuss their emotions as it’s seen as a sign of weakness. Instead they’re taught to deal with them on their own. Mental health is seen as an obstacle that can be overcome when the individual turns to God or their spirituality for help.
That in turn, causes a lot of guilt to accumulate within the individual, because they’ll still be struggling and start to question how strong their faith is if it not helping them get to a better place. What should be taught is that spirituality and prayer can be used as a coping mechanism but not a substitute for necessary treatment. The major religions, including Islam, do believe in seeking treatment for any illness, however misinterpretations of what is said in scripture and cultural influences tend to lead to distortions of the truth.
According to an academic article titled Prevalence of Mental Health Disorders Among Immigrant, Refugee, and Nonimmigrant Children and Youth in British Columbia, Canada, published on JAMA, “there’s a general pattern of lower diagnostic prevalence estimates for first- and second-generation immigrant and refugee children and youth vs their nonimmigrant counterparts. This was consistent with findings in Ontario, which found lower mental disorder prevalence for immigrant children and youth than for nonimmigrant children and youth.
There are a number of systemic reasons why diagnostic mental disorder prevalence might be lower for first- and second-generation immigrant and refugee children. It may reflect differences in health service use and access, such as variation in what constitutes a mental crisis and barriers to accessing services (eg, language, education level, comfort level). Health services are thought to be underutilized by immigrant groups in Canada, especially those originating from East Asia.27 A previous study in Ontario found mental health–related service contact for those with a mental disorder to be lower for immigrant vs non immigrant populations.”
Dr. Halim further explained how lack of access to information, support groups, and research regarding the intricacies of mental health and treatment is a major contributing factor to the stigmas working against mental health awareness.
“The major stigmas associated with mental health have a lot to do with the lack of access to education and information, which is why it unfortunately makes sense that some don’t prioritize it the way they do their physical health.”
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Data Summary & Trends Report from 2009-2019 “more than 1 in 3 high school students had experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2019, a 40% increase since 2009. In 2019, approximately 1 in 6 youth reported making a suicide plan in the past year, a 44% increase since 2009.”
Dr. Halim explained that especially among the younger generation, “the stigma surrounding mental health has improved, however, there’s still plenty of societal and familial factors that can cause many individuals to think that they’re on their own when it comes to things like anxiety, depression, PTSD, etc.
For kids especially it’s easy to fall into the routine of being at home, going to school, and coming back home and creating this monotonous experience where support doesn’t feel like it’s being offered anywhere.”
Dr. Halim then broke down how we all can become better advocates for ourselves and our loved ones, starting at the community level.
“Community centers that foster mentor programs between youth and older individuals who can serve as role models have proven to be a successful tactic in reducing rates of depression and anxiety in youth. These programs are also great because they help kids work through problems of any size. When kids are placed in an environment where they’re encouraged to vocalize whatever struggles they’re going through, it can help mold a new attitude of vulnerability, and feeling safe to feel all of your emotions. It provides validation, comfort, and teaches them that they are truly never alone, and seeking out help is always an option if they need it.
Schools who implement programs like this as well, and emphasize the importance of taking care of one’s mental health, have the same impact. I’ve seen it work first hand in my community and the difference it makes is genuine and positive.”
Additionally, when the community carries a motivational attitude that emphasizes taking care of one’s mental health, it further works to break down the stigmas against treatment and the vulnerability that’s needed to do so.
“I want to especially help kids who come from complex environments that may not view mental illness as a serious issue, and help them understand that they’re in control of their own lives and bodies, and should care for themselves when they don’t feel well emotionally, just like they would physically.
We need to also teach kids, and adults, that the people they surround themselves with matter. Adolescence is one of the most impressionable time in one’s life, and it is often the time that youth start to abuse substances. In middle school and high school, peer pressure is a major trigger for kids to start smoking or using drugs, and once they start it is very difficult to stop. After awhile, the substance becomes a crutch and they feel they cannot relax, sleep, focus, or be themselves without it. Substances are also frequently used as poor coping mechanisms when access to mental health services are not available or they are not sought out.
It’s a generational issue as well, we’ve seen the history of people turning to alcohol or tobacco use as a means of dealing with stress, and those unhealthy coping mechanisms can unfortunately be passed down to future generations as well. In today’s world especially, access to things like drugs or alcohol or any version of unhealthy coping has become so accessible, it’s easy to see it as a simple solution to an overwhelming problem.”
“As a society, it’s difficult to think that we have the power to make the changes needed to steer individuals away from paths of unhealthy coping and into a mindset where they give themselves permission to feel vulnerable and open up about their struggles. However, it starts at a community level, and that support can be life-changing.
Dr. Halim is hopeful for the future and continues to work towards a world where vulnerability in the right setting is viewed as power , and mental illness is treated just as seriously as any other disease.
“I definitely think that kids and young adults are finding it easier to open up more about their mental health because of the way that society has started to emphasize its importance. Older generations, based on my experience, still have a bit of trouble with being completely vulnerable, and it could be due to multiple factors, but mainly the way in which society used to view those who opened up about inner struggles as weak as well as the devaluation of mental health as a field.”
With conversations surrounding mental illness becoming more normalized in our society, there also is the need for educating those who are suffering on the best ways that they can start to improve their daily lives.
“While the conversation surrounding mental health has definitely shifted in recent years for the better, especially among the younger generation, I also think that kids and young adults have a tendency to hear a mental health diagnosis and immediately want to be placed on medication. Medication is definitely a powerful tool, however, the work goes beyond just taking a pill to help rebalance your brain’s chemistry. Similar to putting in time/effort with physical therapy after an injury or making diet/exercise changes when diagnosed with diabetes or high cholesterol, it is vital to seek out therapy as part of the treatment process. There needs to be an equal emphasis on the importance of receiving therapy designed to help one process trauma if it exists, challenge negative thoughts causing depression/anxiety, and teach healthy coping skills when they are needed.
Dr. Halim is hopeful for a future where mental health is given the same level of importance and attention as physical health. She has been a pioneer for breaking boundaries and creating safe spaces for anyone who needs help getting to a place of emotional fulfillment, and control. She is currently a psychiatric resident at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and will continue to work everyday to create a more accepting and understanding world.
Eric Mastrota is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz, he reports on world news, culture, and lifestyle. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.