May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and it’s time to raise awareness in the immigrant community about the importance of mental health and end the stigma surrounding both mental illness and seeking professional help for it.

As a Somali immigrant in Maine, I understand the challenges of navigating mental health in a new community. In my first few months after moving to Maine, I experienced heart palpitations, leg twitches and insomnia. It didn’t occur to me that my problems required professional help. As an interpreter for Maine hospitals, I’ve met many Somali patients who are reluctant to discuss mental health issues with doctors or nurses. Mental health issues are perceived as weaknesses and could be a cause for someone to be shunned in the community.

Abdi Nor Iftin is a Somali-American writer, radio journalist and public speaker. He lives in Yarmouth. He can be contacted at

The community often suggests reading verses from the Qur’an to alleviate fear and depression, but it’s time for immigrant communities to address mental health issues seriously and seek help beyond religion. It will take time, because that is not part of our culture. Mental health wasn’t a topic discussed openly in my entire experience before moving to Maine. It was considered taboo, and people preferred to suffer in silence rather than seek help. There was never a social structure in place to encourage people to get the help they needed without fear of being labeled as mentally ill or “mad.”

Resources are available in Maine for treatment of mental health issues big and small, and it’s crucial to educate all communities to acknowledge the existence of depression and address misconceptions, such as assuming that someone with mental health problems needs only religious treatment.

It wasn’t easy for me to break that barrier, to use those resources that fortunately were available to me, to sit face to face and speak with a therapist shortly after moving to Maine. I felt a bit embarrassed walking into the room, and initially I was hesitant to speak about my depression and anxiety and about the fear I experienced and the deaths I had seen growing up in a war-torn country. When I did speak about them, I got help to deal with them. Seeing a therapist also helped me understand that mental health problems are not a sign of weakness or personal failure. I came out feeling confident to openly discuss mental health, but still I struggled to discuss them with my community, where the stigma and misconceptions persist.

Mental Health Awareness Month provides an opportunity to start conversations about mental health and break down the barriers that prevent people from seeking help. We need to raise awareness through stories of our own experiences. Sharing these stories of hope and recovery, we can help reduce stigma and ensure that everyone has access to the care and support they need to thrive. I know that with the help I received and the focus I put on my own mental health, I feel much better now.

Community leaders in Maine’s immigrant population need to set an example for those who are struggling by openly discussing the resources – therapy, counseling, support groups and hotlines – that are readily available. Community members, let’s pledge to support each other and break down the barriers that prevent us from leading our best lives. By working together, we can create a world where mental health receives the same care and compassion as physical health.

No one should feel alone. Seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

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