Chicago Assyrians confront stigma of mental health, drug addiction

July 19, 2023

Closed-door conversations about mental health and drug addiction in Assyrian homes were made public at an event last month for students, parents and doctors in Chicago and its wider suburbs.

A room reserved for fifty people on June 23 swelled to over one hundred as Assyrian health experts, Dr. Dennis Gelyana and Dr. Alan Georges, led conversations on how addiction impacts a young person’s brain, methods to treat cravings and ideas to promote hope for those struggling with the affliction. 

“In many communities including ours, there’s a stigma regarding mental illness, it is more regarded as a weakness or shame,” said Dr. Gelyana, a psychiatrist in Chicago’s Glenview suburb. “It’s not only beneficial but also essential that our media, social organizations and leaders remind our people that there is no shame in addressing the problem. Education, facilitating support groups for families and encouraging affected people to seek help should become a priority.”

The event, co-hosted by the Assyrian Student Association of Chicago (ASA of Chicago) alongside the Assyrian Aid Society’s Chicago branch, focused on the impact of mental illness on young people.

“We don’t know what’s going on with people’s lives and we don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors,” said President of ASA of Chicago Courtney Moushi. “As much as we’ve been told that what happens in your home has to stay in your home, please do not believe that anymore… I think people are starting to realize the repercussions of staying silent on this.”

In 2020, suicide was the second leading cause of death for U.S. children aged 10 to 14, preceded only by unintentional injury, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. 

The same organization found that during the COVID-19 pandemic, young people aged 12 to 17 saw a 15% increase in drug usage. That number was nearly a 20% jumped for young adults aged 18 to 25.

These increases can be pronounced in communities that have faced suffering, said Dr. Gelyana.

“Studies have shown that immigration, and particularly escape from violence and trauma, can be triggers for mood, anxiety, and substance use disorders,” he said. “Unfortunately, the Assyrian community is no exception to this rule. In treating mental illnesses in our community, aside from correcting underlying chemical imbalances, we must also address issues of anger, shame, forgiveness, hope, and acculturation.”

Noted among the audience at the wide-ranging discussion were the parents, many of which were older men.

“They’re starting to see the writing on the wall,” said Ashur Shiba, Morton Grove Village trustee and Executive Director of Vote Assyrian. “They’re seeing their kids struggle. These people come from countries where a strong man doesn’t talk about his problems. ‘You’ve got no issues, walk it off,’ that kind of thing.”

Shiba, who helped organize the event, lost his own brother to a drug overdose two years ago. He said his brother’s memory now fuels his work to destroy the community’s deep-rooted stigma of talking about addiction and seeking help.

Shiba plans by the end of the year to open a mental health and drug rehab facility, staffed entirely by Assyrians, that will help people on site or direct them to other rehab or medical centers to treat more serious cases. 

“I invited a few addicts that didn’t show up to this event, it was unfortunate,” Shiba said. “It’s going to take a long time for us to educate the people and have them start coming in, especially Assyrians. I think this should be the number one issue for the entire community.”

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