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04 May, 2011

By Dominic Weakley

A unique attempt to provide help for refugees affected by mental health issues is gaining ground in Harrow, in North-West London. Abdi Gure, who is part of the Initiatives of Change (IofC) UK fellowship, is pioneering a mental health project to assist a frequently unacknowledged and misunderstood minority – Britain’s growing Somali community. ‘Mind’, Britain’s foremost institution for handling mental health issues, have evaluated Abdi’s project as “innovative”, “revolutionary” and “inspiring”.  

Abdi Gure (Photo: Dominic Weakley)
Abdi Gure (Photo: Dominic Weakley)
The Somali Mental Health project was started three years ago by Abdi and his colleagues in Harrow to help a marginal group too often disregarded or ignored by society in general; those with mental health issues simultaneously seeking refuge in a foreign land. In a recent Mind report, entitled “Mental Health services for Refugees and Asylum seekers – a messy picture”, Abdi highlights the predicament of the Somali refugees, he himself being a refugee from Somalia, who arrived in England nine years ago.  

Unfortunately, their plight is neither easy nor simple, since everyday life can be a tremendous struggle. Regardless of their inability to speak fluent English, (some may not be fluent even in their own language), cultural differences frequently cause much unnecessary stress and bewilderment.  

Somalia is a predominantly Muslim country, formed of male-dominated, segregated tribes and clans. When Somali refugees arrive in England they must therefore quickly learn to adapt to a radically different lifestyle in a strange new culture. Often they need help and support, particularly in language translation and cultural understanding, but are woefully under informed as to where support can be found.  

Fortunately, help is now at hand to allow refugees, especially those with mental health issues, the ability to heal mentally, spiritually and emotionally, allowing them to integrate back into society. Following the recent success of Abdi’s Somali Advocacy Research Project, or SARP, he is starting up another, the Hayaan project, aimed at assisting Somali refugees with the additional burden of untreated, undiagnosed, and often unnoticed mental health issues. 

Abdi initiated SARP in 2007 and has been intensely dedicated to its progress. Supported by The King’s Fund, a charity that funds only the most prestigious think-tanks for new creative help projects, Abdi’s mental health project evidently put their financial backing to good use.  

Over three years, SARP has helped a total of forty clients with mental health problems, most of whom have now settled back into society and are able to lead normal lives again. It also created some much needed awareness for conditions that would typically be ignored, misunderstood or overreacted to in Somalia, such as depression or schizophrenia. SARP ended this January. 

One patient of Abdi’s advocacy project emphatically testified to this in an interview in Mind’s final issue of its Diverse Minds magazine.

According to an anonymous service user: “I spent three years in hospital doing nothing, just getting medication, but when I was referred to the Somali Mental Health Project this changed. I moved from hospital to a rehab house. I was illiterate, but with support from Mind in Harrow I’ve enrolled in their Stepping Stones ESOL classes and I am looking forward to get back into the community and hopefully get a job when I have finished the class.”

“In Somalia our perception of mental health is very different. We only think of mental health if someone starts behaving bizarrely…on top of this, mental health is often seen as an incurable condition.”
- Abdi Gure interview,
Diverse Minds magazine

Abdi is part of the global network Initiatives of Change UK, which aims to build trust within communities. Abdi says, “In my project I utilise the principles of IofC, we provide care for individuals and deal with their personal problems. We bring in families and communities to also be included in the caring for individuals.”

The reason behind the effectiveness of Abdi’s projects is his ability to use heart-based methods as opposed to finding purely physical solutions to a variety of issues. Abdi is a strong advocate of involving the family and the surrounding community to assist in rehabilitation, in stark contrast to the traditional use of medication and logic-driven, textbook diagnoses of patient’s often complex and individually distinctive problems. Abdi provides effective alternative solutions to a problem that has formerly been poorly handled and unfairly ignored.

Abdi’s most recent project has been so successful the demand has now become overwhelming. To accommodate the meteoric rise in demand, volunteers -- many of whom are recent University graduates -- were, and still are, being invited to join the project and expand the struggle for self-sustainability to the wider community. Promisingly eight new volunteers, sourced from within the community, have been initiated into several high-end projects already.

From left to right: Christel, Josie, Nisha, Raksha and Abdi at the Mind head office in Harrow (Photo: Dominic Weakley)
From left to right: Christel, Josie, Nisha, Raksha and Abdi at the Mind head office in Harrow (Photo: Dominic Weakley)
SARP focused on the importance of informing clients where they could get support, and assisting the reintegration process. Following on from this, Abdi’s new mental health project, Hayaan will begin this December. Hayaan is a Somali name meaning ‘moving to a better place’, a suitably optimistic choice following the success of SARP, and aims to advance on the considerable foundations of support and advice provision for various mental health issues. Significantly, mental health practitioners and psychiatrists will be invited to Mind for the entire duration of this latest project for in-depth question and answer sessions, a service that allows clients the fundamental need to talk through their problems. Hayaan will also be funded by The King’s Fund, and intends to be both open and flexible, so that patients will be able to drop in whenever help is required.

Abdi has a background in Psychodynamic Counselling. In 2001 Abdi was invited to become a founding member of SIDD, the Somali Initiative for Dialogue and Democracy, which works to unify the Somali communities.

As a result, he has the rare ability to understand the needs of individuals within the community from their perspective. These attributes are essential since cultural understanding plays a large part in either selecting an appropriate treatment, or comprehending what can be a culturally specific phenomenon.

Whereas traditional methods may seem cold and unsympathetic, leaving clients regularly feeling either patronised or misunderstood, Abdi’s mental health projects are uniquely able to empathise with the clients.

In Somali culture, mental health problems are considered to have a spiritual basis, meaning the most likely course of action for treating mental health would involve a trip to the mosque or advice from the local imam. It is not just medication by itself, but compassion and support that are needed; even if, medically speaking, this only creates a mild placebo effect it can greatly benefit the emotional well being of the patient by relieving depression and stress for example. Combining this concept with assisting Somali refugees to integrate into society in a general sense constitutes the driving force of both SARP and the Hayaan project.

The outlook on future progress for the Somali Mental Health Project appears extremely positive. The project now looks ready to expand its benevolent borders; Mind in Harrow have recently been approached by the neighbouring borough of Brent asking for ideas and support on how they can emulate their many remarkable successes.

Encouragingly, judging by Abdi’s relentless and unwavering advances, this is still only the beginning of a bright future for the Somali community in Harrow, and eventually, possibly, the rest of Britain too.  

Dominic Weakley is a writer and proofreader. He has a degree in Film Production with English from Canterbury Christ Church University and is currently an intern with FLTfilms.

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