The stigma of mental health in the Balkan community: Two young people share their stories

Rafaela, 23 years old, Albania

I was born in 1999, in a small village in South Albania. When I was 2 years old, my family decided to migrate to Thessaloniki, Greece. In general, I had a really difficult childhood: my parents were working almost 14 hours a day, in order to provide the basics for me and my younger sisters. They couldn’t spend time with us, to discuss or do something together as a family. In a sense, I was the responsible one for our household: I cooked, I cleaned, and I always made sure that my sisters had done their homework for school. I was even translating governmental documents for my parents, as their Greek wasn’t enough for this.  I was always oppressing my feelings and my problems because I had to appear as strong as possible. My parents depended on me, so I couldn’t let them down…

 When I became 14 years old, I started realizing that something was “wrong” with me. I was always very sad, but I couldn’t understand the reason. I didn’t enjoy anything anymore, not even my usual activities and hobbies. Gradually, I stopped socializing and spending time with my friends. I couldn’t even find the urge to get out of my bed. My school performance was getting worse. Every night, after I made sure everyone in my house was sleeping, I was crying in my bed for hours. And I didn’t know why…

I started searching for symptoms of depression on the Internet. After a while, I found out that I fitted many of the criteria to be characterized as depressed. It took me many months to confess everything to my mother, and when I finally found the courage to do it, her reaction shocked me. She got extremely mad at me, she said that I was ungrateful, that I didn’t appreciate anything she and my father gave me, and that I was exaggerating. She started comparing my life to hers, to prove that I did not have a single reason to be sad or depressed. My parents have indeed been through a lot: the extreme poverty they were raised in, the civil war in Albania, the migration, and the tough first years in Greece. My mother couldn’t comprehend how her daughter, who had everything, could not be satisfied with her life.

But there was another problem as well: What would the others say? That sentence concludes most of the problems within the Balkan Community. The members of the Albanian diaspora have strong ties everywhere, and everything becomes known quickly through gossip, as there is no such thing as privacy in our community. After my confession and my demand about visiting a psychologist, my mother’s biggest fear was that I would be characterized as “problematic” or “crazy” by the rest of the Albanians in our city.  In a way, my mother was trying to protect me: mental health issues as still a taboo topic for our people, and she didn’t want me to suffer from the criticism of the community. But at this point, I didn’t care about the others. I just wanted to be happy again.  

I had to become an adult and make my first income to visit a psychologist and start therapy. She quickly diagnosed me with depression. Today, after years of ups and downs, failed methods, mental breakdowns, and a lot of effort, I am finally starting to get better and enjoy my life. After some time, my parents decided to ignore the judgment and the gossip of our community, stand by my side, and support me as much as they can. They do not see me as problematic anymore, but as their strong, over-pressed little daughter, who got lost in the way. I still love my ethnicity and my roots, but I really hate my community’s mindset about certain topics. The stigma around mental health issues is still strong in the Balkans, and our generation should try to eliminate it.

Nikola, 20 years old, North Macedonia

 I was born and raised in Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, in 2002. My childhood was very happy and peaceful: I had a lot of friends, my school performance was always great, and, most important, I was part of a big, bonded, loving family. Obviously, we have been through some difficult situations, both financially and emotionally, just like everyone else, but we were always able to face our problems because we were united. Life went by normally, until 2019 when I lost my father in a car accident. We were all devastated. It took us many months to accept his loss somehow and continue with our lives, but things would never be the same…

 Except for my grief, I was also forced to face some other problems as well: my father was the provider of our family, the only one who worked and brought some income to our house. Now that he was gone, that weight was on me. At this point, I must mention that, except from loving and bonded, my family is also quite conservative. Every day, my uncles would come to our house and talk to me for hours, about how, from now on, I was forced to protect my four little sisters and my mother, to provide them with anything they might need and, of course, to preserve their honor and their purity. I was now the man of the house, and my responsibilities seemed enormous to me. I felt like I became an adult in an instant, and I couldn’t deal with it.

My anxiety was increasing every day. After a while, I had my first panic attack. I can still recall that first experience: how I couldn’t breathe, how helpless and scared I felt. Soon, panic attacks became a routine. I was begging my mother to take me to a specialist. Instead of doing so, she called our local priest to help me. My uncles were mad at me. They said that I was weak, that I was acting like a little girl, and that I was nothing like my father. They even accused me of faking my panic attacks, so I would avoid my responsibilities. My little sisters were unable to help me. All they could do was stand by my bed every night until I fell asleep, talking and trying to relax me, so I wouldn’t overanalyze everything and have a panic attack again.

 I decided to open up to my friends about my condition. Fortunately, they were very understanding and supportive, and they even accompanied me to the first psychologist I ever visited. It took me some time to find a specialist I could truly trust, and I finally found him one year ago! He diagnosed me with anxiety disorder, I started therapy and things are going great ever since.

 My mother and my sisters are still by my side, trying to help me and support me in any way possible. They even educated themselves about anxiety disorder, to fully understand my condition. The rest of my family never accepted my mental health issue. They still see me as weak, but it doesn’t matter to me anymore. All I care about is improving myself and being there for my mother and sisters. Over time, I understood that having a mental issue doesn’t make you weak or, in my case, less of a man. Mental issues are obstacles that could appear to anyone, and many of them are treatable if you don’t ignore them, or hide them out of shame. In general, the Balkan community lacks education and empathy around mental health, and that is something young people should work on. In 2022, the stigma is still present, but its future is in our hands.

Post Author: Kaiti Leivaditi

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.