To commemorate Mental Health Awareness Month in May, the African Leadership Group’s Health and Wellness Committee held a series of Facebook Live conversations with students, parents, and mental health professionals.
The goal of the “Breaking the Stigma of Mental Health” video series was to help immigrant parents in particular understand that there is no shame in discussing mental health challenges with their children, each other, and with mental health professionals.
Often, mental health struggles are seen among African immigrants as somehow shameful, something to keep hidden and dealt with in private. As a result, potentially life-limiting or even life-threatening conditions can go untreated, with dire consequences.
In two of the videos, a panel of four high school students, all the children of African immigrants, discussed openly and honestly how they cope with mental health struggles, how they approach such issues with their parents, and where they go when they feel they need help, or know someone else who is having a hard time.
One student who participated in the conversations was Javan Lubanga, a 10th-grader at Compassion Road Academy, a Denver Public Schools high school. Javan’s father is a Kenyan immigrant, and his mother a native Coloradan.
Javan said he found participating in the sessions helpful and informative, even though he was hesitant to speak at first and it took him a while to “come out of my shell” on camera.
“I felt I could relate well with the other students who were there, because all of us have immigrant parents,” Javan said. “We are all being raised by someone who came to this country with different values and expectations.”
In his own experience, Javan said he hasn’t heard his father ever discuss his feelings. “But when it came to me, and especially to my education, he was very open with my teachers. He would talk to them about what I was going through. Of course, he made it seem like I was just kind of acting out.”
Javan said he appreciated ALG’s interest in producing the video series and soliciting the opinions of students. “I like that people want to hear from teens and hear our opinion on mental health issues, instead of just guessing about what we’re going through. I thought that was really cool.”
To follow up on the productive dialogue, Javan said, ALG’s Health and Wellness Committee should continue reaching out to youth and parents to ascertain “whether you, or your kids are dealing with anything, and then also connecting them to mental health supports.”
Health and Wellness Committee Chairman Abdul Pessima said the conversations conducted for the video series helped open some immigrant parents’ eyes to some of the challenges their children are facing.
“Parents have realized that they have to listen to their children,” Abdul said. “Immigrant parents, and not just African immigrants but Hispanic immigrant parents as well, we have a tendency not to pay attention to what our young people are going through, but just to control them. We tell them they should always listen to us, but we don’t listen to them when they are going through issues.”
The extent to which young people lean on each other and discuss mental health challenges among themselves was a revelation from the conversations for Abdul. “They said a lot about how they check in on their friends to make sure they are OK, and that was a real eye-opener for me,” he said. “If a friend who is usually laughing and joking around goes quiet, they want to know what’s going on. That’s very healthy and I was glad to hear it.”