Suad Ismail: Fighting Cultural Stigma, Finding Compassion
As Suad Ismail sat in her high school psychology class and listened to her teacher lecture on mental health, she felt like she was unlocking a secret code.
Could this field be the key to certain mysteries that left her community scratching their heads — the sudden surge in autism diagnoses, the high rate of suicides?
Now, Suad realizes, the study of psychology often brings more questions than it does answers. But her motivation and her personal mission — to address cultural stigma surrounding mental health and to cultivate compassion in her Somali community toward those with mental illness — have remained the same.
“As I came into my undergrad years, I had this mentality: ‘I’m going to educate our community so that we have better acceptance of mental illness,’” says Suad. “That was what drove me. That was my calling.”
Receiving her bachelor’s degree in child psychology from the University of Minnesota, then her master’s in counseling psychology from Saint Mary’s University was just the beginning.
What Suad wanted was to create transformative culture change.
“The majority of the Somali community just doesn’t understand the issue of mental health. They push it away, either minimizing it or assuming that it doesn’t affect our spiritual community,” she says.
If one simply prays more or worships more, any struggles with their mental health will be whisked away, Suad kept hearing. By the time that she graduated and got a job, she had grown frustrated with this “religion-cures-all” argument. She knew that those with mental health conditions, even Muslims, needed more than prayer and Qur’an.
“I’ve seen cases where families tell the individual to snap out of it, to get over whatever symptoms they’re experiencing, or to go to the mosque and have the Qur’an be read to them” — leaving the root cause of those symptoms undiagnosed and untreated. And the longer a mental health condition goes untreated, the more difficult it becomes to alleviate its symptoms.
One story stands out in Suad’s mind: “I saw one client who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. When symptoms started showing, the family didn’t understand what was going on. The client slowly came from being able to work, to cutting off family, to using substances and isolating.”
This individual’s family thought that a trip to their home country could help, “but when they came back their illness was even more severe because they were without medication. It became their baseline to have hallucinations, to be disconnected from reality,” says Suad.
“If the schizophrenia had been treated when the symptoms first showed up, there’s a possibility that it would have been minimized.” But because of the gap in treatment, this individual still experiences symptoms, even with medication.
For Suad, this story illustrates how critical it is for those with mental health conditions to have full community support. She explains, “research shows that even if you have one person who supports you, you are much more likely to have an optimistic view of life,” which is a key component in recovery.
And Suad was hopeful that she could begin shifting the tide in her community. Emulating the Prophetic model, she started small, with her own family.
“I let them know that this is a problem and that I’m not in it for the money. I’m in it because I want to make sure that everyone has access to resources, that everyone has the ability to live their lives to the fullest.”
The stigma meant that her family was apprehensive of her field, because “people do not want to associate with any type of mental illness,” she says. The initial reaction that she received was: “What are you going to do with crazy people? Are you going to become crazy just like them?”
Suad guided her family, “showing them that these are individuals who are like any others in our community — they speak the same language, have the same culture, eat the same food. They are struggling with things that come easy to us, and they need our support.”
Now, she says, “there’s much more appreciation around what it is that I do and how it impacts the people I work with.” When her family’s initial misunderstanding and misjudgment of her career choice shifted, Suad felt encouraged to continue planting seeds for change.
She began reaching out to individuals — friends, acquaintances, even strangers. Suad’s inviting openness is her best asset when it comes to outreach and awareness-building. She’s always ready to talk about mental health, no matter the audience, no matter the occasion. “I just start a conversation wherever I go,” she says. “If I can find one person who’s willing to listen to me and hear me out, then that person can take it back to their network and educate them.”
Suad was rewarded with a beautiful ripple effect as this new knowledge and new awareness spread throughout her community. Soon, she was partnering with various Islamic organizations and mosques. At the Islamic Center of Minnesota (ICM), for example, she regularly hosts mental health discussion groups, inviting others working in the field to share their expertise.
At ICM, Suad also introduced care for community members with mental health conditions through the Center’s Al Shifa Clinic, which offers free medical care to anyone who needs it. As Program Coordinator, “I connect with patients, understanding what their needs are and whether we can provide them or finding other providers that are low-cost if we’re not able to help them,” she says.
In addition to her work at Al Shifa Clinic, Suad is Case Manager at Mental Health Resources, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to foster hope, health, and recovery for people affected by mental illness. In this role, much of her time is spent making sure that clients’ basic needs — food, housing, and healthcare — are met.
Often, the challenges that Suad encounters in this setting are similar to the ones in her own community. “If I go into a culture where there’s a lot of stigma that surrounds mental health, there are roadblocks to the family working with me rather than against me,” she says.
How does she address this obstacle? One simple message: “I really care about you and I want what’s best for you.”
Conveying her compassion is all it takes for Suad to begin breaking down barriers.
And her work doesn’t stop there. Suad is currently pursuing her license to become a clinical counselor, which will authorize her to provide individual therapy. It’s an intensive process that involves 4,000 supervised work hours and several exams along the way.
But the culture change that Suad envisions for her community is enough to keep her going. “I would love to see us coming to understand what mental health is and giving it as much importance as physical health,” she says. “If I could just bring awareness, then I have accomplished something.”
There’s not a single doubt in our minds that Suad is accomplishing something. She is a true changemaker, leveraging her intelligence and her compassion to shift a cultural paradigm. She’s committed to openness and acceptance — even when that feels furthest away.
The source of her strength, Suad says, is her mother. “She was my rock when I felt weak. She made sure that we were happy and proud to be Muslim women growing up in America and has taught us to hold our head high, to never fear anyone when you have Allah [God] on your side.”