The Arab American Association of New York (7111 Fifth Avenue) will for the first time offer onsite mental health counseling in Arabic here in Bay Ridge—a crucial service made possible by a grant offered through The Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City. Although this important program has been repeatedly mischaracterized on social media and elsewhere, particularly among the small but vocal opposition to AAANY executive director Linda Sarsour (no, the grant doesn’t pay for Sarsour’s plane tickets), these services in fact will help the Bay Ridge community as a whole by subsidizing much-needed and hitherto unavailable public-health services for a growing population.
One of only 14 nonprofits awarded the grant citywide, the AAANY will partner with NYU Lutheran Family Health Centers to launch the services. The grant will allow the AAANY to hire an onsite Arabic-speaking counselor, train staff and do community outreach on issues relating to mental health. “The ability for someone to get mental health counseling in Arabic is limited citywide, let alone in Bay Ridge,” Kayla Santosuosso, deputy director of the AAANY, told us, “so we are thrilled to be able to offer these services to our clients. This is a source for pride for us.”
Two key priorities of the Mayor’s Fund are to serve traditionally underserved populations and to reach the outerboroughs, which is why the AAANY’s application scored so highly. Since its founding in 2001, the AAANY has offered various services to the Arab-American population, including adult education, youth development, legal and immigration services, college counseling and youth community organizing. It also provides services relating to substance abuse, domestic violence, teen pregnancy prevention and poverty. The AAANY is staffed and equipped to address these issues—whether providing help in-house or connecting those in need to city services—but it has never before had the resources to deal properly with mental health.
When clients came to the AAANY with potential mental health issues, they would be referred to NYU Lutheran or a qualified professional in the area, but there was no way to follow up. For NYU Lutheran, the challenge was both to match incoming clients with native language speakers and to address cultural issues, neither of which could easily be done ad hoc.
The grant will allow staff at the AAANY to screen clients, address what they can in-house with a trained Arabic-speaking counselor and make referrals in a better coordinated and, more importantly, trackable way with NYU Lutheran. There are no restrictions on who can be served (you needn’t be Arab-American) as long as clients go through the proper intake protocols and screening process. The grant will strengthen the existing bond between an important community organization and a reliable healthcare provider.
In addition to the pride the staff at AAANY feels in being able to offer these services, there’s also a sense of urgency. The recent influx of immigrants from war-torn countries such as Syria, for example, has made plain the need for mental health services, both city- and nationwide. In recent years, staff members at AAANY had increasingly noticed clients who were stressed, agitated or otherwise troubled, Santosuosso said. After brief conversations—or sometimes much later—they would learn that these were new arrivals to the States, often fleeing war or poverty. Many had left families behind or were trying to provide for them in a new country about which they knew very little. Some were even suffering from the effects of PTSD, which can be hard to detect. By the time the grant-application process began, the staff at AAANY had already begun reassessing their needs. “This came at exactly the right time for us,” Santosuosso said.
For the AAANY, mental health services are so important it’s willing to take on the added workload and demands that the terms of the grant require, including increased pressure on an already overworked staff and budget and the need for lots of new training. The AAANY is also required to match dollar-for-dollar the $100,000 per year they receive through the Mayor’s Fund, which adds to the association’s already-strained fundraising efforts.
But another challenge the AAANY faces is cultural. While the AAANY is better equipped and positioned in the community to address language problems than many city agencies, there’s still the matter of stigma surrounding mental health, which, according to a study in the Journal of Muslim Mental Health, “remains strong” in certain segments of Arab culture (not to mention in the culture as a whole).
However, the cultural issue cuts both ways, as the study points out. Newly arrived immigrants often face discrimination and harassment based on the color of their skin, adding to the stress of forced relocation. Likewise, agitation or disorientation can often be over-interpreted as aggression instead of recognized as the symptoms of mental illness, and so sufferers of mental illness among the immigrant Arab population are often less willing to seek help than those in the population at large.
Thus, for newly arrived immigrants, these issues can be doubly masked beneath both internal cultural stigma and external discrimination. To say that resistance to mental health is solely a “cultural issue” is to misunderstand the complex way in which culture shapes behavior and ignores the perilous contact zone in which many immigrants exist. These individuals often fall between the cracks of both the culture that they have left and the culture they are trying to navigate.
Locally, we are beginning to see results. AAANY staff has already gone through training at NYU Lutheran. An Arabic-speaking social worker has been hired and trained and will start taking clients soon. They have also begun outreach with community leaders and local health providers, and later in the grant term will begin public outreach, including workshops and educational sessions.
Mental health is not simply an individual issue—it’s part of a larger sociocultural landscape that demands a coordinated effort among all stakeholders to address properly. The Mayor’s Fund is providing opportunities to foster partnerships between communities and city health providers for the benefit of an overlooked population. The AAANY has long built deep relationships both within and beyond the Arab community (whether immigrant, transplant or native), especially during times when this community has seemed forgotten by the rest of the city. This grant is an important milestone for Bay Ridge—and for New York City.