Our mental health or salamti roh va ravan has a direct relationship to something that has been forced upon us and has been taken away from us: Our personal choice!
In our Iranian culture, usually we do not have many choices. We are constantly forced to do things that we do not like; we are forced to choose partnerships that we do not appreciate and to choose faulty ideas that are not always healthy.
When I was a child, we had a crazy man in our neighborhood in Tehran, in the Behbodi area, who lived on the streets. He was famous for being Ali Divaneh. This man, who was in his thirties at that time, had obviously “lost his mind” to use public language, by having a mental illness. I remember all the kids were afraid of him; yet, some of the boys would chase him and make fun of him by bullying him and calling him Divaneh. What choice did this man have but to defend himself and get these bullies off his back by scaring them more? His chances to find support or to get help was minimum.
One day around lunch time, this Ali Divaneh appeared at our door, as he had seen the entrance to the backyard being unlocked. My mom gently offered him food since he seemed hungry. He ate while looking at us with wondering eyes and then disappeared from that door. I am still wondering what he thought that day and think that what he probably missed the most was having a family and living with a family.
Now that I am becoming a therapist, I’ve come to think of how we treated this man and all our mentally ill people: with cruelty and bullying. To this man I would say today: I am sorry for all the suffering you had to go through, for the lack of understanding we had for you, and for the lack of support you had from your family and your community.
In our culture, we usually treat mentally ill people with rejection, avoidance, and disrespect. Why? Because we have no idea what mental illness is–we are still not sure about it. It is time to learn!
Mental illness is not the absence of health; it is the disturbance that happens in our minds, in our brains, in our lives, and in our whole personal being. Mental illness comes to surface when we are not able to express our fears, our shame, our guilty feelings, our hatred, our love, and even our discouragements about various aspects of life.
The reality of life in Iran, the emotional baggage that we carry, the amount of horrifying experiences that we have gone through, the pain and anxiety of separation, all and all can cause one healthy body to become numbed and to not function. We need help then and even long before that time.
Mental and physical health is connected to the presence of love, connection, belonging, affection, respect, and healthy interpersonal relationships. Many physical illnesses and somatic symptoms are due to our emotional and psychological burden. Becoming a new immigrant, shifting gears so many times in life, changing lifestyles if we have to, feeling the pressure to adjust to many things at the same time, and being in an emotional pressure to deal with the everyday anxiety of separation, all are reasons for psychological disturbances.
The problem intensifies when we have to pretend that “everything is all right,” we have families to support and we have to manage many things at the same time. We usually, (that is, we Iranians), do connect all the anxiety and emotional pain to the physical body, we see doctors to get medication to sleep, to lose weight, to walk, to talk, to think, to function, and to live. The most that we do is see a psychiatrist who can diagnose us and prescribe more medicine.
· We need to learn to find support groups for ourselves.
· We need to be more open and talk about what is bothering us
· We have to learn to express our feelings and thoughts.
· We need to let go of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that do not work.
· We need to let go of a past that is haunting us to death.
· We need to let go of being right all the time and instead, learn to listen.
What else can we do to stay healthy in all aspects: physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, and cultural?
Hope, prayers, connection to god, and the feeling of being loved and cared for–these are all aspects that positively affect our mental health.
Many families and individuals lose that hope for one or another reason and live a lonely, isolated, and alienated life. We can find them and help them find resources and bring their hope back!
July 15, 2007
For a Persian translation of above article please see: