Confronting mental health
Nate Araya is an Ethiopian American filmmaker. In his latest project, he travelled throughout the US looking to converse with immigrant communities on a slew of issues important to the community. He reflects with The Reporter’s Samuel Getachew on what he found out, why the issue is one that can no longer be ignored in the community, and reflects on his activism.
The Reporter: What would you say directly to immigrant parents who do not know how to respond to their children's mental health struggles?
Nate Araya: Immigrant parents are survivors. They have plowed through life, seeking education and opportunity to provide a better life for their children. Their value system and how they grew up is very different from the value system that exists around the first generation experience. Usually, within the household, there is a barrier because we are talking about two different value systems, two different belief systems, and two different experiences, so often there is a disconnect in the house.
The way we can bridge the gap is, first, I want parents to seek to understand before they seek to be understood, and to really learn to be vulnerable with their kids and vice versa. It is okay not to have answers for your children. Really, it takes a community to raise a child. It takes a teacher, it takes a boss, it takes a parent, and it takes a friend. As a parent, if you can provide an environment that is welcoming for questions, concerns, doubts and fears, then you can cultivate an environment for your child to feel welcomed in and to be able to come to you with all their stresses and anxieties, and I think that is half the battle.
It is a great win if you can provide a cultivated and welcoming environment for your child. I would urge the parent to really just have an open door policy, where they can ask these questions so that they can feel they're not alone. At the end of the day, we just need to know that we're not alone, and that it's okay to not be okay all the time.
I think within our generation, first-generation, especially on social media, there is this push for perfection that everyone is trying to achieve. If we take a picture on Instagram and we don't like it, we can put a filter on it, and then move on to the next. But life doesn't have filters. Our reality doesn't have filters. Our reality is messy and you can't fix everything, but you can face it. My hope is that we can face ourselves, we can face our parents and our parents can face their children in a way where it may not be a perfect conversation and there may not be a perfect solution, but that is ok. As much as we admire parents and think they are our heroes; the reality is that they're also just figuring life out—just like we are—and it's okay to not have all the answers.
You are about to release a film focused on mental health, still a taboo subject among Ethiopians. Tell me the highlights of the Film?
My purpose for this film is to connect with people and build community around stuff that matters – for those that feel insignificant, unheard, disconnected, misunderstood or overlooked. Mental health is a big taboo within the Ethiopian culture. There is a lack of information and misunderstanding around mental health care within our Ethiopian culture, the Diaspora community and the society. The three main highlights from episode one of my new documentary series touches on how we can start a conversation around mental health, release the fear around mental health care, and inform the community on healthy self-practice therapy and counseling through resource sharing.
In the film – Growing Up In America - you traveled in a number of States having conversations with ordinary people. What were the Highlights?
I’ve spent the last 2 years traveling across America for various projects where I held “Coffee and Conversations,” community discussions, within that city on the different challenges that exist within the Ethiopian and greater African Diaspora cultures in the US.
I have noticed there are many social, spiritual, emotional and cultural pressures that we carry within the black, first generation and immigrant communities living in America. “Growing Up In America” was birthed from much of these conversations. Mental health is the first of many episodes started in Austin, Texas. I am still in the mid-production with the rest of the traveling documentary series seeking executive producers and media platforms that would be interested in partnering.
You have had an exposure, rich conversations among the children of immigrant communities in the United States, including Nurse Lidet Muleta, a psychiatric who specializes on mental health. Why do you think there is a taboo of mental health in minority communities?
Lidet is an amazing expert and person within the field of mental health that I have been fortunate to get to know. I featured her story on my podcast, “Africa In US” and I organized an Instagram LIVE conversation and community discussion on mental health featuring her within the conversation.
The lack of information, resources and accessibility has created a negative perception around mental health within minority communities in America. We have learned to medicate or manipulate many of our trials, traumas, tragedies within our lives. We medicate ourselves with damaging coping mechanisms to help us avoid the external pressures and pain that have produced an internal conflict. We manipulate ourselves by telling ourselves our hurtful past experiences don’t matter. As a result, we believe it’s something we must avoid and not address.
To break this taboo, we have to first, reach a place of vulnerability within ourselves about what we have experienced or are experiencing. Second, understand that we are not alone with our struggles and third, begin to engage in an open and honest conversation with one another. Healing is a continual process and it can be helpful for us to open up about our stories and life experiences.
There is a negative connotation that exists around seeking help for mental health care. I have found within my research that mental health is a silent struggle that we need to give a voice to within our community. There is a fear of how we will be perceived within our community. We are very uncomfortable with what is unfamiliar.
There are many layers that make us human. To really dig deep, uncover and make sense of all what we have experienced as immigrants, first generation and black people living in America is not something that can be fixed overnight, but it does need to be faced. We can never fix what we are unwilling to face. Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston once said, “Owning your story can be hard but not nearly as difficult to spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy - the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
What do you hope to achieve with this film?
My purpose with this first episode of “Growing Up In America,” is to start a conversation, release the fear and inform the community around mental health in order to normalize it within our communities, culture and society today. The purpose for the entire documentary series is to explore different parts of American cities, cultures and conversations surrounding the underrepresented communities in America. I want to bring fresh, new under-represented stories to light and start conversations around stuff that matters within minority communities in America.
Were you able to see the experiences of the institutions that specialize on the subject in Ethiopia, including the mental health institute, Amanuel Hospital and what was your reaction?
I have not.
It’s not always easy to get funding for such a film, even in the mainstream communities in the United States. What was the reception like for you, in terms of finding adequate funding for such a film?
I am still in the middle of getting a funding for this film through partnership opportunities. This is a passion project of mine. Everything thus far has been self-funded by me because I believe in the vision and impact it will have. I am currently in conversation with a few media platforms and high level producers for funding the rest of this series. Stay tuned to updates through my website www.NateAraya.com, Instagram @NateAraya, Facebook @IamNateAraya, Twitter @IamNateAraya and Snapchat @NateAraya.