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Discussing depression with Somali women

By Sarah Hobbs

It is Monday morning; a haphazard trickle of ladies enter the room with greetings, smiles, tissues (it is chilly and all seem to have colds), prams and small children. 

At the head of the table sits Faduma, one of only a handful of Somali-speaking qualified psychotherapists in the UK.  

Welcome to a group therapy session specifically for Somali women. The weekly sessions provide space and time to discuss different aspects of depression. 

‘Depression’ is a slippery creature, as a word, concept, diagnosis, and illlness, particularly for minority communities. As a ‘Western’ illness, different prisms of understanding for ‘health,’ ‘illness’ and ‘treatment’ can present challenges for support. Under the umbrella of mental health it has stigma amongst many communities across the world. The Somali equivalent word means ‘someone who has fallen out of life’ and has similar negative and dismissive connotations. 

The ladies quite openly share their thoughts and experiences of recognising the signs and symptoms of depression amongst younger children and teenagers, as well as possible factors, such as puberty and its accompanying challenges, and how to help. 

With much nodding, wry smiles and affirmative laughter, it would appear that all present are familiar with the realities of struggling teenagers, not such an issue in Somalia as those under the age of 18 stay very much within the family fold. 

UK life presents a different set of cultural issues to deal with, such as going out, independence, relationships, peer pressure and ‘keeping up and being cool.’ 

Communication emerged as a significant issue – often leading to a sense of isolation for the parent. Parents tend not to speak and read English as well as their children, leading to role reversal in household matters such as paying bills and reading letters – sometimes a cause for tension in itself.  Similarly contact with schools can be poor; direct contact with teacher and parent is very rare. There is also a lack of understanding about how certain services and systems work in the UK, so it becomes harder to find what help is available or where to get it. This is not helped by expectations of how the wider community may react if help is sought.

This much-needed session highlighted the wish amongst the ladies to rebalance their family dynamic, to reconnect with and better understand their children through eating dinner together or spending a day a week doing family activities.

As Faduma succinctly put it:

  • Where does a child learn love and compassion?
  • Where does a child learn values and behaviour? 
  • If these things aren’t learnt in the home then how is he or she able to take them out into the world?

Surely there should be no stigma attached to that?