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Mental-Health Illness in the Somali Community By: Ali Hersi

The growing Somali community had started arriving in the UK during the early 1980s, mainly taking jobs as sea farers and sailors. They began to settle near sea towns in England such as: Liverpool and Cardiff. Where they use to sail to all corners of the world in ships, containing cargo to different countries. These Somali seafarers would regularly return back home to Somaliland during their holidays to visit family and provide financial income. They never once intended to bring their children to the West and other foreign countries, since they were very patriotic about their country and their cultural values. However, due to the Somalia civil war they had to make the decision to bring their children to the UK as a means of safety and better quality of life for them and their future.
In the 1980s, as political instability occurred in Somalia under the rule of the late Siyad Bare who dictated the country and caused massacres and killing of thousands of innocent civilians. Uprising had occurred, which led to civilians taking action into their own hands. The Somali civil war had led to such complications that many civilians had to make the big decision of moving to the UK for a better life and safer future.
The perception of the UK can often be viewed as a ‘’ safe haven’’ for many people coming from war-torn countries. However, like many Somalis who first arrived in the UK their perceptions were far from reality. The struggling to fit into society made it very difficult for many Somali people who had first arrived in the UK. Particularly the language barrier and barriers to the educational system. Pressures began to build up upon many Somalis who had emigrated to the UK, this involved the pressures of back home and the financial support and responsibilities they had upon family members.
Substance misuse was particularly prevalent amongst the youth of the Somali community that first arrived in the UK. This can be due to many factors such as a coping mechanism to the war, financial problems and lack of jobs as well as homelessness. Khat was particularly prevalent and was used as a form of socialising. Since there were no support systems in place, many young people felt they had no direction this included staying in khat houses and socialising with khat users. This continued for years and years day and night, and has led to significant impacts to physical health and mental health. It also provided them with other means of coping such as alcohol misuse, hashish and other forms of drugs.
Mental illness:
There is a vast majority of Somalis who suffer from mental illness, which mainly stems from the various points mentioned above. I, the author of this article has been working in the mental health area, and are very familiar with the problems and causes that engulf the Somali people. I have seen many Somali patients in mental health institutions and mental hospitals, who have been admitted for various reasons from suicidal attempts, to depression and severe substance misuse.
According to the experience I have, many Somalis had little or no understanding of the many mental health illnesses present in the community. The stigmatisation of mental health in the Somali community should be addressed, people with mental health illnesses shouldn’t feel discriminated against. Mental health is an illness like any other and requires treatment in order to get better. Some Somali people who have mental health illnesses are very apprehensive in taking part in many treatment activities for various reasons. As a mental health support worker, when attending appointments with clients, I have witnessed many psychiatrists assess what treatments are required, and the diagnoses helps to assist and predict what is likely to happen once the diagnosis has occurred. It can also be a relief for a distressed person to be able to put a name to what is wrong with them. But there are limits to diagnosis, each person’s experience of mental distress is unique and it can be misread, especially if there are cultural, social or religious differences between doctor and patient.
Different doctors may give one person completely different diagnosis, simply focusing on the symptoms can mean that not enough attention is paid to the person as a whole and to their situation. Their experience may hold a meaning for them, which no medical diagnosis can do justice to.
The main illnesses within the Somali community are schizophrenia, manic depression (bi-polar disorder), PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder). During manic episodes people tend to be hyperactive and reckless. This could be caused by khat used, which can exacerbate the emotions present in the individual. Schizophrenia is on the most debilitating of all mental illness and can severely interfere with someone’s ability to perform daily tasks and activities. Symptoms can include: hearing voices, and seeing things that other people cannot see, withdrawal and confused. PTSD can mainly occur through traumatic experiences such as war, it can consistently bring back disturbing and distressing memories as well as grief.
In conclusion, in order to tackle the stigmatisation of mental health illness in the community we need to ensure there are rehabilitation centres with programmes that involve Somali workers who can relate to and understand the situations many Somalis who have mental health illnesses have experienced. Rehabilitation programmes will enable the re-integration of Somalis with mental health illnesses to enter into society, into employment and be able to continue their lives whilst controlling their mental health illness. Programmes such as: activities, swimming and group outings in order to minimise depression within younger and generation.


Ali Hersi