She experienced depression when she arrived in Chicago from Iraq. Now, she helps others spot mental health challenges among immigrants

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On her white board are several dates written in red marker.

Ekram Hanna wrote those dates in the fall, when she learned she would have funding for a daylong mental health training she hoped to coordinate.

“When you put something in your mind, you just do it,” she said.

Hanna is an Iraqi immigrant who is certified as a mental health first aid instructor. She trains others on how to recognize signs and stigmas of mental health among immigrant populations.

She was one of about 15 people who became certified to lead mental health first aid trainings, in part through an Office of Refugee Resettlement grant, said Isabelle Darling, a clinical mental health consultant for the National Partnership for Community Training, a program of Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services based in Clearwater, Florida.[Most read] Illinois marijuana dispensaries sold more than $10.8 million worth of recreational weed in the first five days of sales. Now, some have halted recreational sales amid product shortages. »

“We recognize that refugees need to be at the forefront of the conversation,” Darling said. “We knew that this was an area where we would need advocates from within the community to advocate for mental health, for delivering the language and purpose for this work.”

People benefit from hearing from others who have experienced similar challenges. For refugees, mental trauma does not begin or end at the time of flight, Darling said.

“We tend to think that the refugee experience of fleeing is where the challenges start, but a lot of times it starts even beforehand,” she said, like when a person’s home country begins to feel unsafe or his family is at risk or separated. “All of these experiences end up building.”

Darling said Hanna brought a clear passion for connecting the right language about mental health to immigrants.

“She was definitely one of the standouts,” Darling said.[Most read] Did you pack weed in your carry-on? O’Hare and Midway airports now have boxes for dumping your recreational marijuana before boarding a plane. »

The eight-hour trainings that Hanna now provides cover topics such as providing help to people experiencing depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, and understanding the stigma of mental health. Many immigrants are hesitant to share difficulties, much less seek help through a therapist.

“For us, we don’t even talk about that,” Hanna said. “We really need to talk about that.”

Many immigrants and refugees arrive in the U.S. after experiencing trauma in their own country, and then confront mental health challenges as they try to adjust to a completely different culture and language. Often, they are doing all of this while trying to find employment and enduring separation from their families.

At the first training that Hanna held, which she said included a representative from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, she trained colleagues at the Middle Eastern Immigrant and Refugee Alliance, where she is a community engagement manager, and staffers at other service agencies.

Ekram Hanna, center, and Josefina Alvarez, right, conduct a mental health training at MIRA office on Dec. 7, 2019.
Ekram Hanna, center, and Josefina Alvarez, right, conduct a mental health training at MIRA office on Dec. 7, 2019. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)

Hanna understands how hard it can be to adjust to a new country and a new life. When she arrived from Iraq in 2012 with her husband and two children, then ages 6 and 4, she experienced depression. Even though she felt confident in her education, she said having the confidence to speak the language was her biggest barrier.[Most read] Pier 1 Imports closing up to 450 locations; storewide sales underway at half of chain’s 24 Chicago-area sites »

“You have to learn everything as a baby,” she said. “When it comes to speaking, this is a big thing.”

Hanna didn’t leave the house for several months when she first arrived in Chicago because she wasn’t able to communicate well.

“It was really hard for me,” she said.

Ultimately, finding a job and a routine, and a community, helped, she said.

The experience gave her a passion for nudging others to leave the home and learn English. Right now, she runs a group for women, many of whom are refugees from countries including Afghanistan, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Syria. It is something she has dreamed about for years. A decade ago, she worked with a group in northern Iraq focused on empowering women.[Most read] Column: Cubs fans need to be patient. Once the Kris Bryant grievance is finally resolved, the team will make its moves. »

“I felt like that’s the thing that I wanted to do,” Hanna said.

Often, she said, she encounters women who stay home for years without speaking English. Many of the women do not feel comfortable with everyday activities like taking the bus.

“I have passion to help these ladies,” Hanna said. “A lot of people, they came as immigrants or refugees, but especially for a woman, in our community, they don’t have the courage to go out and do stuff by themselves. So they just stay home, even for years.

“I want to change the way that these ladies think,” she added. “Because when you think that you are less than a man, you will feel like you are limited.”

The most recent training she facilitated included 17 people who work with immigrant service groups, and counseling students, and a doctor.[Most read] XFL will take a ‘Star Trek’ approach to rules when it kicks off next month »

“It was an amazing group,” she said. “That was really encouraging.”