When Tarek Yahya moved to Philadelphia from Lebanon two years ago, he noted many cultural differences between Eastern and Western countries, specifically when it came to mental health.
“Here within the U.S., mental health appears to be regarded as essential,” said Yahya, a junior biology major. “When in comparison to back home, it is not even considered as an aspect of you.”
The transition to college life can hold a heavy weight on students’ mental health as they are exposed to new topics, attempt to balance a demanding schedule and integrate themselves in a new culture with drastically different social settings.
Sixty-six percent of people suffering from a mental disorder in a 2019 survey of youth living in the Middle East never sought professional help due to stigma, Arab News reported.
For Yahya, the open dialogue about mental health in the U.S. has helped him become more aware of his emotions, he said.
Searching for acceptance of mental illness has not always been easy, Yahya said. The topic is often disregarded in health discussions and viewed as a non-influential factor in a person’s everyday experiences, he added.
For people of Middle Eastern background, mental health can be seen as a weakness of faith which may prevent them from seeking help, according to a 2019 study published in the research journal Mental Health, Religion, and Culture.
Kareem Johnson, a psychology professor, feels the stigma around mental health is harmful to people.
“If you have never seen [mental illness], it is invisible to you because struggling with emotions isn’t ‘medical enough’ for some,” Johnson said.
In his classroom, Johnson tries to ease tensions felt among most college students by being understanding when one may ask for extensions on assignments because of their mental health.
It’s difficult maintaining mental health through 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, the crisis in Yemen, the explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, and other global issues, he said.
“Life has always been stressful, but we used to have these ways of recovering, things we would do to heal our wounds,” Johnson added. “With social distancing now, there is so much that we’re losing access to.”
Zakaria Alyan, a junior biology major who was raised in Jerusalem, Palestine, has been dealing with the stresses of working on a pre-med track.
Alyan says his academic workload, extracurricular activities and career planning are his main sources of stress, and they tend to stand in the way of his mental well-being.
“It’s often difficult to discover what I truly want, instead of what others want me to do,” he said. “Among peers, mental illness was a struggle that was hidden at times back home.”
Yahya found that friends and relationships helped him realize the necessity of addressing stress concerns. Through this support, last semester Yahya contacted Tuttleman Counseling Services and he’s grateful to receive mental health care while living in the U.S, he said.
“Mental health should be the number one priority because everything else is a testimony that stems from your mental performance,” Alyan said. “It is easy to get caught up in superficial activities, but if you avoid putting time into work on what is bothering you in your head, it will keep building up to a point where you feel as if all control has been lost completely.”