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  • Writer's pictureHazel

For the Ancestors

If you follow me on Instagram, I'm sure you had seen me talking about the mental health seminar I attended this past Sunday. The speaker was a brilliant MD based out of Dearborn, MI named Dr. Shady Shebak. I'm going to give you a brief rundown of his interpretation of what mental health looks like in Arab communities. It's also fair to note that today, April 1st, is the New Year for many people of the ancient Mesopotamian societies, as well as the beginning of National Arab Heritage month. So, this post is extremely fitting.


Before I start, I think it's really important to cover the basics of what this looks like in our society. I'm sure I don't need to say too much about the stigma we have toward people with mental disabilities in our communities. For one reason or another, those struggling with mental health impairments seem to get shoved off into the corners of Narnia without so much as a second glance. Dr. Shebak mentioned the overlap of religion as it pertains to mental health stigmas- which comes as no surprise in much of Middle Eastern countries. Their emphasis on collectivistic values discourages many people from seeking help or speaking up out of fear of "dishonoring the family". booooo tomato tomato, throwing tomatoes!


In any case, here are some of the core lessons I learned from this seminar in hopes that it might provide some more insight into the particular role it plays in our societies.


  1. Dignity vs. Guilt and Honor vs. Shame

This is a concept found in many collectivistic societies in which the compass for moral decision-making and behavior is intrinsic vs extrinsic. Basically that our guiding motivators in life are completely dependent on what we deem as indignatious or what is worthy of guilt towards the tribe.


Honor vs. shame, on the other hand, is a concept popular in many western societies and is completely motivated by a more external compass of behavior. i.e. "Will this behavior bring honor or shame to me as an individual?" To be honest with you, I always knew there were significant differences between individualistic and collectivistic societies but hearing him phrase it in this way made so many things click in my brain. I finally began understanding why there is such a huge cognitive dissonance between acceptable and expected behavior within myself. We as Arab Americans are essentially following two separate compasses simultaneously.


2. Face Saving


Dr. Shebak also mentioned a third compass that has not been readily as talked about as the other two aforementioned. This third concept is one of "face saving". He didn't go into too much detail with this one so I am going to shamelessly plug in my own understanding and interpretation of this concept. Within spirituality, there is the concept of the "ego" vs the "real self". I believe this is where this compass comes into play. We discuss often the "face" you put on to the public. It's not really a new concept- in fact, the term "persona" stems from the Greek word meaning "through sound" in which Greco Roman actors would wear a clay mask with a hole cut out for sound and speaking. The name kinda stuck and that's what we have now.

Image below is an example of said masks.

In any case, I believe this particular compass is dictated by our innate desire to protect the ego we have built- regardless of whether Arab or American or the amalgamation of both. This leads me to my next topic:


3. Marginalization vs assimilation vs integration


As Dr. Shebak so brilliantly described it, marginalization is the process of denying both cultures which leads to the exclusion of a set group in society. Do you know those memes of "too halal for haram people and too haram for halal people" ? Yeah, something along those lines. Assimilation is the process of being fully accultured to Western life and integration is the process of melting the two together.


From a mental health perspective, I'd say it would be a phenomenal idea to understand where you fit in any of the aforementioned categories. It is through this understanding of yourself that you can begin getting a better handle on the circumstances and situations that may cause you distress. I won't go into any more detail about these topics as I still have more to learn about them myself, however, I will advocate for the education on multicultural perspectives on mental health. Sometimes, we don't need labels or diagnoses to feel better, we just need some guidance and a solid compass. I'd highly recommend getting acclimated to a variety of resources, including lectures such as the one I attended, in order to spark more dialogue over what mental health looks like in our American way of life. Understand the pressures of society and familial piety as well as the goals of self-actualization. It is through these methods that we can begin making changes within our communities to raise healthier next generations.

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