Mental health thrives in the darkness – our deepest fears, most powerful anxieties, proclivities for depression can easily take root and grow in silence. Stigma can easily precipitate the sense that mental health is something one must manage individually. At Heartland Alliance, we understand that oftentimes it takes the support of others to address mental health. Our trauma-informed care and strengths-based approach can help participants find the light through the dark.
For Elena, a mother of two and a participant of Heartland Alliance Health’s IFACES program, taking those first steps toward help were the most difficult.
“I used to draw when I was little. I loved to create beautiful images and depictions of places I wanted to go. But that stopped when the war started. I hadn’t opened up to anyone about how I felt about that, about what I’d gone through. Now, with the help of IFACES and my therapist, that is changing.”
They say that refugees experience three major traumas: the trauma of what had caused them to flee their homes, the trauma of living without an official nation, and lastly, the trauma of resettling into a foreign environment.
Elena, a refugee from Iraq, escaped the country at the height of the war. For eight years, she lived in a host country that did not recognize her refugee status – forcing her to endure the constant fear of sudden deportation. When she arrived in the U.S., rebuilding her life was difficult. The overwhelming changes and past traumas made it hard to step outside the house, let alone become part of a new community.
That all changed when Elena’s husband learned of Heartland Alliance Health’s IFACES program. The program provides comprehensive, community-based mental health services for refugees, asylees and their families suffering from trauma or emotional disorders. For years, the IFACES team has helped countless refugees rebuild their lives and establish a home in Chicago.
“My healing, my work toward accepting and opening up, it all started with my case manager Firas. He helped me get to the point where I could actually talk with a therapist.”
Firas quickly connected Elena with a therapist and signed her up for group outings with her fellow refugees. Getting to know the city with people just like her helped reduce the anxiety of being outside in strange land, and she was able to find the beauty in her new home city.
Through therapy, Elena began diving into the hard conversations that she had never been able to address. They talk about her traumas from back home, her eight years in Jordan, the difficulties of building a life and a family in a new country.
“It’s amazing how much ground we have covered. I never imagined myself exploring my feelings. Talking to my therapist is like talking to a mirror. My experiences with Firas and my therapist help me understand my new country and myself.”
Her therapist recommended she find new ways to express her thoughts and feelings, and Elena found the strength to once again pick up her pencils. Most of her art reflects places she’s read about or seen in books and magazines, or of places she remembers from her past. Most of her artwork depicts homes or places of security and safety.
“Therapy gives me the ability to dig deep into my spirit. My depression, my anxiety, my bad thoughts shut me up for so long. When I began my therapy, I found myself drawing. I dive into those thoughts and anxieties, and I put them to paper.”
Today, Elena finds herself in a much happier space. There is still much work to be done, but her outlook is much brighter. She envisions a bright future for her children and even sees brighter colors in her future works of art.
“If you have a gift – whatever it may be – use it to help express yourself. When I did this, the degree of my depression and anxiety improved so much. Explore what is in you.”