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Author: Hiawkal Gizachew

Mental illness in the Ethiopian community

By Hiyawkal Gizachew

In Ethiopia, counselors are seen as helpers for “crazy” people. When most people in Ethiopia are faced with a problem, they tend to talk to their family members, neighbors, friends, or they go to church to talk to the priests and pray about it. Also, traditional healing plays a big role. In Ethiopia mental health issues are not talked about, or if it is brought up, it is always associated with “mad people” who walk around half naked on the street and talk to themselves. Mental illness is also seen to have supernatural causes such as spirit possession; people with mental illness are seen as violent and will never recover. These are myths that have a part of Ethiopian culture today. As a result, people don’t seek professional help, whether they are experiencing minor or major mental illness.

This raises a question, what is mental illness is? Do we know what causes it? People with mental illness experience problems in the way they think, feel or behave to the point that these despair feelings, thinking and behavior interfere with their daily functioning. As a result, their relationship with family and friends are affected, as well as their employment. It is essential for us to understand that having a mental illness is no one’s fault. According to experts in the field, there are many factors that may cause a mental illness, such as a {www:genetic predisposition}, chemical imbalance in the brain, stress and exposure to severe trauma. Mental illness includes disorders such as anxiety, {www:post-traumatic stress disorder}, depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

When major negative life events occurs such as losing loved ones, divorce, an accident, or serious prolonged problems such as substance abuse or domestic violence, coping becomes progressively more difficult, and resulting distress begins to impair one’s daily functioning and can cause sleep disturbances, appetite changes, energy level changes and intrusive thoughts.

It is unfortunate that mental illness is running rampant within Ethiopian community. It is an issue no one is addressing. People are suffering from severe depression, the number of young adult committing suicide is increasing, some are abusing substance to cover up what they are feeling while other are showing it in their aggressive and violent behavior. Divorce, domestic violence, parent-child conflict, and crime are increasing. In a culture where mental illness is associated with “madness,” it is not shocking that Ethiopians don’t seek help. Mental illness is a major problem in our community that needs to be addressed by everyone including, youth, adults and the elderly. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate by age, gender, socioeconomic status, or education level. We need to come together to educate and jointly fight the stigma that is holding us back from seeking professional help.

(Hiyawkal Gizachew, a Mental Health Counselor with the Northern Virginia Family Service, can be reached at [email protected])

Forgiveness and Mental Health

By Eyob B. Kassa

Is there a connection or association between forgiveness and mental health? The answer to this question depends on how you define forgiveness and mental heath. Traditionally, forgiveness is more associated and defined from a religious point of view. Of course, how we define forgiveness is basically depending on the context. However, forgiveness whether in its religious or spiritual context, has a profound and life transforming power on both the victim and offender.

What is forgiveness?

Forgiveness is not denying or minimizing the hurt. Forgiveness is not necessarily forgetting, because deep hurts cannot be forgotten so easily. So, what is forgiveness then? Forgiveness is a deliberate choice or decision that is based on self-awareness to the extent that our capacity to forgive is totally based on our broken nature and need of deeper healing. In simple terms, forgiveness is an act of caring for yourself, because no matter how much you hurt, if you still hold someone’s “sin” you are still hooked to that person and situation. And that is not a wise thing to do. Often times we are struggling with the concept of forgiveness because we know and feel that what has been done is wrong and justice is not served. I think that is true. What has been done is wrong and justice has not been done. However, there is no right time to forgive unless you do it for yourself. You cannot change what has happened, but you can change how you think and free yourself from that person’s hook. One of the key misconceptions we all are making is that forgiving someone means about them. No! Forgiveness is not about the other person; it is about you! Forgiveness is a choice, a conscious decision of your will. By failing to forgive you are punishing yourself not others.

Your health is depend on your choice to forgive

Unforgiveness has a profound effect on your health. The bitterness, anger, frustration, disappointment, etc., all that emotional and psychological baggage that accompanies unforgivenss leads to physical as well as mental illness. Forgiveness liberates your soul, mind and body. When you are unable to forgive, your anxiety and stress level increasing, your heart starts beating faster, your body starts shaking, your muscle tension double, the blood flow to your heart is constricted, your digestion is impaired, you start developing hopelessness, helplessness, low self-esteem, as the result life and anything in life will have no meaning, no value and no purpose to you. In general, unforgiveness has a huge amount of impact on your physiological, psychological, behavioral, and social paths.

How to forgive?

First of all, forgiveness is a process. Though it depends on the severity of the hurt, forgiveness is a process that takes time. Secondly, forgiveness requires both our willingness to work through and effort to move forward with hope. Sometimes we say, “He/she doesn’t deserve it. Because I am the one who got rapped, molested, intimidated, beaten, abused, rejected, etc.” The list goes on and on. I don’t think no one deserve forgiveness after such atrocity. But it is not about who deserve what, it is about YOU! What YOU deserve!
Something bad happened to you, something that you didn’t allow or won’t to be happen. But, you have a choice not to be controlled by what happened in the past. There is a way, there is a hope to live and move forward from the past. But that depend on your willingness to work through, change your perception and develop a new attitude about life and the life ahead of you.

How can you reach to that state of forgiveness?

1. Acknowledge: Don’t minimize or ignore what happened. Forgiveness is not about denying, it is about acknowledging and the ability not to hold on to the hurt. Forgiving someone does not mean forgetting of what happened. Rather, it means letting go of your hurt and anger, and not making someone endlessly responsible for your emotional well-being.
2. Accept: You cannot change what you don’t acknowledge and you cannot change what has already happen. Forgiveness is not about what happened (I am not minimizing the reality here) but it is about now and the future. Don’t waste your energy focusing on the past while you still have a chance to move forward to the bright future. Instead of mentally and physically replaying your hurt, try to seek out new ways to get what you want.
3. Act: Acknowledging the fact and accepting what has happened is not enough unless you are willingly and boldly act on what must to be done to move forward. Part of this process requires your action to forgive the person. Remember, forgiveness is not about the other person; it is about you. So, do it for yourself. Be the change you want to see in yourself.
4. Activate: When you have so much pain and hurt in your soul, your mind is filled with a tremendous amount of negative thoughts. As the result you are experiencing stress, anxiety, depression and pain. However, there are effective ways to activate and renew your way of thinking positively. The process of activating constructive and positive thoughts starts by recognizing or identifying every negative assumptions and twisted thoughts that you have in your mind. How you can do this? Well, there are lots of ways to cultivate such a constructive thinking. Some of them are talk therapy, prayer, positive associations, and so on.
5. Aspire to the greater joy: The process from victim to victor is a journey. It can be long and it can be challenging, but it is not impossible. Step by step, day by day and year after year, over the process of time you will overcome and healed from all your past. However, moving away from your part as a victim to victory is in your hand. Don’t let the other person control your life by choosing not letting go. Aspire to a better future. When you’re holding onto something, you’re less open to give or receive. So, you need to let go of the past, so you can have a future.

(The writer can be reached at [email protected])

Post-traumatic stress disorder

By Hiawkal Gizachew

We all react to traumatic events differently, as well as coping with the event. Most people who experience a traumatic event may feel sad, anxious, angry, fearful and frightened for short period of time after the event. These reactions tend to be normal, if they go away over time. However, sometimes the traumatic event can be so overwhelming that one feels distressed, shocked, freighted, angry, and hopeless for a longer period of time. Events that could be considered traumatic are assault, domestic abuse, prison stay, rape, terrorism, war, serious accidents and natural disasters. According to the American Psychological Association, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), is an anxiety problem that develops in some people after extremely traumatic events, such as combat, crime, an accident or natural disaster. This means PTSD is a disorder that can occur after a traumatic or terrifying event in which serious physical harm occurred or was witnessed. So, the question becomes, how does one know if s/he is experiencing PTSD or a normal reaction after a traumatic event?

Symptoms of PTSD fall into three main categories: The first one is “Re-living”; persons with PTSD repeatedly re-live the event through thoughts and memories of the trauma. These may include flashbacks or nightmares where the event seems to be happening again and again, and the strong negative reactions can remind the victim of past trauma. The second category is “Avoidance”; persons with PTSD may avoid people, places, thoughts and situations that may remind them of the trauma. This can lead a person to feeling detached, numb and a lack of interest in normal activities. The third category is “Arousal”, difficulty concentrating. Feeling irritable or having outbursts of anger, sleep disturbance (trouble falling or staying asleep), and being easily startled, are some of them. Furthermore, anger, irritability, guilt, shame, depression, hopelessness, suicidal thoughts, feeling alone, and feeling of distrust are other common symptoms of PTSD. These symptoms can impair daily functioning activities such as appetite, sleep, work, or school.

An example of PTSD would be someone who was imprisoned in Ethiopia. This victim may have been tortured, beaten, threatened, and interrogated. This person may feel his/her life was in danger and had no control over what was happening. After being released, the person may have upsetting memories of the event, nightmares, loss of interest in activities and life in general, difficulty falling or staying asleep, difficulty concentrating, and an increased attempt to avoid reminders of the trauma.

Coping with PTSD can be hard; you may try to numb yourself and avoid the painful memories; however, it is like the saying “beshetawen yaletenagere medanite ayegayeletem.” If you are experiencing PTSD, seek treatment to help you cope with the trauma you have experienced. During counseling for PTSD, a counselor will help you explore your thoughts and feelings associated with the traumatic event, provide education on PTSD and how to cope with intrusive memories, address resulting problems in your life caused as a result of the trauma, help you identify internal and external triggers, as well as techniques that will help you cope with PTSD symptoms.

(The writer can be reached at [email protected])

Cultural shock and Depression in the U.S. Ethiopian community

By Hiyawkal Gizachew

The things that people value in their life really depend upon many cultural factors. For example, age, family, education, religion, nationality, and personal experiences will influence the things we hold dear. Our identities are formed in our culture. It then stands to reason, that migrating to a different culture may cause someone a great deal of stress and anxiety.

Culture Shock is a term used to describe the stress and anxiety one experiences in a new culture. An individual may be forced to learn a new language and {www:assimilate}. In addition, they may find that some of their own deeply held values may not be equally important to their new host culture. Growing up in Ethiopia, “good girl” qualities included being shy, conservative, and soft-spoken. However, in American culture, the same qualities can be mistaken for a lack of confidence and self-esteem. Young women who transition from Ethiopian culture to American culture may experience culture shock. If their values do not line up with their new environment they may feel like they are forced to choose.

Most people came to America looking for a better life for themselves and their families, some who are well educated and successful in their careers in Ethiopia. Upon arrival in America, they realize that the picture perfect image that media painted was far from the truth. That dream of a country where poverty doesn’t exist and where people reach success with little hard work is not the reality of America. Most people, no matter how well educated or how experienced, will have to start all over again. People who are willing to work hard for success may still face language barriers, value conflicts, and discrimination. The combination of these obstacles and culture shock can cause people to experience sadness, loneliness, anger, and frustration. These feelings bring about anxiety and stress and our thoughts and behaviors are affected.

We all go through ups and downs in our lives. This is a normal reaction to life’s struggles and disappointments. However, if sadness persist too long or impacts daily functioning, it might be a sign of depression. Possible symptoms of depression are as follows: sleeping too much or too little, difficulty concentrating, feeling hopeless and helpless, having negative thoughts, eating too much or too little, or irritability. Negative thoughts about oneself will impact behaviors. People’s thoughts (cognitions, self-statements, beliefs, assumptions, perceptions and schemata) can be distorted. Because of the busy lifestyle in America, having time to talk about our stress with family or friends is difficult to achieve. In some situations people hardly see or talk to the people they live with because of busy work schedules.

Having a counselor will provide clients with the necessary resources and healthy coping skills to deal with the depression, anxiety, and stress. Counselors will provide clients with information on the connection between their thoughts and feelings. They can help the client identify distorted thoughts, examine the validity of their perceptions, and replace faulty thoughts with beneficial thoughts.

If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms they should seek help and consider talking with a professional counselor. It is essential for people to understand that experiencing depression and seeking help is not a sign of weakness. It is the key to a happier life.

(Hiyawkal Gizachew, Mental Health Counselor at Northern Virginia Family Service, can be reached at [email protected])

Mental health: What is counseling?

By Hiyawkal Gizachew

“Why would I want advice from a stranger? All counselors do is nod their heads and ask questions.” These are some of the myths people have about the counseling profession. The dictionary describes {www:counseling} as the provision of assistance and guidance in resolving personal, social, or psychological problems and difficulties, especially by a professional.

Counseling helps to alleviate mental health problems. It presents a way to gain perspective on behaviors, emotions, and relationships. It also provides individuals with a means to express their feelings and process their thoughts. Essentially, counseling empowers the client to come up with solutions that are suitable for them. Counseling gives people the opportunity to talk about their issues with someone who is objective and non-judgmental. Furthermore, any information disclosed during client contact with a counselor will be kept strictly confidential. Client’s written permission is required before any information about client contact is released to anyone. The {www:counselor} cannot even acknowledge to any one that he/she knows the client. However, there are three situations where a counselor is required by law to break confidentiality, and they are as follows: If client is in imminent danger of harming self or others; If there is suspicion of child or elder abuse or neglect; and if there is a court order issued for the information.

In a community where it feels like everyone knows everyone, or knows someone that knows someone, I understand why one would have concerns about seeking professional help, especially from an Ethiopian counselor. However, it is essential for us to understand counselors are required by law to keep everything confidential except for the three conditions listed above.

One might believe that seeking counseling is a sign of weakness. However, it is a sign of personal strength. It takes courage and self-awareness to be able to reach out for help.

How does one know when to reach out for help? There are no right or wrong answers but typically persons come to counseling when their thoughts, feelings, or behaviors interfere with their daily life activities. Examples may include disturbances in sleep, appetite, or employment and/or difficulties in relationships. Periods of prolonged sadness, anger, helplessness, or grief may also be an indicator that one should seek counseling.

Counselors will educate clients about healthy ways to cope with problems and adjust to the world around them. Clients have the right to participate in all aspects of counseling such as developing treatment plans and deciding when to terminate services. Once a client initiates services, s/he can choose to terminate services at any time.

(Hiyawkal Gizachew, Mental Health Counselor at Northern Virginia Family Service, can be reached at [email protected])