Culture & Stigma: A Barrier to Mental Health Access
Written by Amelia Lomat

Simply put, stigma is the lens that negatively impacts the way we view and think about groups of people or individuals in our life, often leading to social isolation. The word derives from the Greek term that signified a mark of shame usually branded or tattooed on criminals and delinquents to differentiate them from the general population. Stigmas nowadays go beyond physical identifiers. One way, in particular, is the stigmas for those who have a mental illness, which affect the way an individual feels about themselves, their future and their likelihood to reach out for help.

Though mental illness stigma plays a large part in how we look at mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, there has been a shift regarding mental health topics like wellness, anxiety, and depression and their acceptance in mainstream society. However, this isn't the case for all Canadians, especially those who belong to cultures that often view these real illnesses as taboo. We spoke to Habon Ali on the topic. Habon holds a Master's of Science in Global Health, graduated from the University of Toronto as valedictorian and was recently named a Schwarzman Scholar. She will be moving to Beijing for a year to study Global Affairs at Tsinghua University. Not only is Habon distinguished academically, but she is also recently named under Canada's Top 100 Most Powerful Women. A few of her many accolades include advising PM Justin Trudeau over the past two years for Canada's first Youth Policy, acting Board Chair of the not-for-profit Apathy is Boring, and working at Ontario's Legislative Assembly.

Habon Ali: Hate and negativity are learned. We can't take understanding, compassion, dignity and respect for granted.

Beneath the hard work and determination, Habon is a 24-year old Somali-Canadian who grew up in Rexdale, Ontario. "My upbringing and realities shape my worldview and motivations. I grew up witnessing how poverty and systemic racism impacted health, education and justice and thus impacting people in my community." Seeing her loved ones, friends and community members not able to live out their full potential sparked her interest in government, sciences, innovation, and health equity. Throughout the pandemic, Habon witnessed negative impacts on the mental health of Somali-Canadian youth due to financial worries, educational and interpersonal challenges, and cultural stigma. Additionally, the intersectional identities as Black Muslim youth from lower-income communities resulted in limited choices and access to coping strategies. Ms. Ali used her personal experiences and knowledge as fuel to her graduating thesis that spoke on social detriments to the health of second-generation Somali-Canadians. 

"Mental health and lower socioeconomic status are deeply interwoven," Habon explained, noting from her research. She refers to a participant's experience regarding the desire to seek mental health services; in Somali culture seeking mental healthcare is taboo because family support and religious support are seen as sufficient mental health supports. "We can understand that seeking and obtaining mental health care services takes effort. Even if this barrier were to be overcome, they would be met with long wait times to see a mental healthcare provider or a lack of cultural, social and religious awareness". She shared another participant's story, a student who decided to speak to a counsellor to understand him, reassure him, and give him ideas of what he can do to deal with his life challenges. He mentioned that some of the pictures his counsellor shared were not realistic within his lifestyle. "Unfortunately, this is a reality for Black Muslim youth seeking mental healthcare services due to their intersectional identities. Often, healthcare providers are not from our communities and lack the cultural, religious, and social understanding to provide care." 

Habon believes that hate and negativity from stigma are learned, and we shouldn't take understanding, compassion, dignity and respect for granted. "These values are lived and cultivated throughout our lives. Every single human deserves dignity and respect. We must protect and live these values for a positive collective future."

When asked what impact she hopes to make in her community, Habon stated, "I am passionate about community building, health equity, and a future where everyone can live their full potential. I have a strong interest in global health equity and reducing health inequities on a national level here in Canada and at an international level. Canada is a microcosm of the world, and we have a responsibility to our communities and our global communities. I aspire to live in a local community and world that allows every single human being to live out the full potential of their life. "