Growing up in an Albanian household in West London during the late 90s and early 2000s, there was a concept that surrounded the upbringing of myself and others in the diaspora.
Marre — shame in English — is embedded within the diaspora and has not evolved much since I reached the anti-climactic state of adulthood. Admittedly there are some lighthearted and quirky outcomes to this. For example, when your mum frantically loads up on cleaning materials as soon as she hears news of guests coming over for fear that a speck of dust is seen by the visitors.
Despite some comical moments caused by these messages, it wasn’t until my 20s, when among several stressful life events, a family member was diagnosed with a mental illness. I had the opportunity, then, to untangle the effects of what shame meant for me through therapy.
Taboo and shame in Albanian culture
Untangling shame within therapy meant a lot of reflection on the messages that our culture had taught me about what it was to be an Albanian woman — and more importantly — what it told me an Albanian woman could not be.
This led to an awakening that my very existence as a woman meant that despite my feminist inclinations, I had subconsciously shapeshifted into the approved mold of what it meant to be a woman: To avoid shame for me or my family. Not a uniquely Albanian phenomena, but strongly Albanian in a way, nonetheless.
Mental health is not thought of as a key issue for our diaspora or family and friends back home.
Sadly, it is not just gender that is characterized by narratives of shame in the Kosovo Albanian diaspora. Experiencing mental health issues also forces individuals into trying to mask their mental health problems for fear of ostracization. As a result of this, a falsehood is perpetuated by the diaspora, the idea that mental illness does not exist in our communities.
Of course, it is not that mental illness does not exist within our community, but rather, that it cannot and will not be allowed to exist. Shame, having worked so well to dominate many of diaspora’s families’ understanding of mental health, has effectively silenced, ostracized — and worse still — pushed out many members of our communities who struggle with their mental health.
Having grown up with this understanding of mental health from our communities, I did not mention my therapy to other Albanians in the diaspora. For another family member of mine, shame ridden messages and a lack of understanding about mental health led to social ostracization. They no longer attended festivities and other events because of the discriminatory and awkward treatment they would receive.
Though many people within the Albanian diaspora may know of someone with a mental health condition, their voices and experiences are often submerged in a culture surrounded by taboo and shame; effectively silencing their experiences, and ensuring that outwardly at least, mental health is not thought of as a key issue for our diaspora or family and friends back home.
Living in denial
It is belonging, a fundamental human drive that leads humans to adopt many social norms irrespective of their harmful impact on individuals. In a culture where mental health conditions are taboo, the repercussions this has on the Kosovo Albanian diaspora is often detrimental.
Much of the diaspora grow up believing that hiding aspects of themselves is the only solution to maintain group identity and achieve belonging. This is not just individual, it becomes intergenerational, and has a great impact on mental health. Worse still, once mental health issues can no longer be concealed, members of the diaspora with these problems, are often ostracized out of shame.
Collective awareness of the isolating impact that mental health problems pose within the diaspora leads many members of our communities to minimize the nature of their own problems for fear of isolation. There is also an internalized belief that they are flawed for even experiencing issues with their mental health.
Changing attitudes within the diaspora could help those in our communities who need mental health support
Many members of our communities often do not seek treatment when they require it and consequently, face a worsening of their mental health issues. From believing that mental health issues can be cured with diets or by consulting religious figures; many members do anything they can to wish their mental health problems away before seeking medical and psychological treatment.
Facing the problem
The stigma surrounding mental illness is of course global and not unique to Albanians. Living in the UK, I can attest to the fact that “the West” itself is not necessarily better at accepting those with mental illness. However, the isolation those with mental health issues face once the problems become visible, and the extremely taboo nature that mental health has in our communities is a reality that the Kosovar Albanian community needs to closely look at and attempt to tackle as a collective.
In 2020, some Kosovo Albanian news outlets reported on the tragic murder-suicide of one Swiss Albanian family on holiday in Kosovo, was attributed to “family problems.” This case did not lead to further discussion, within the diaspora nor Albanian media, on the implications of domestic violence and mental health within the diaspora.
Yet, what effect would it have on our communities if mental illness as a topic was a part of public discourse? Additionally, doesn’t the diaspora itself have a crucial role in starting these conversations, where access to mental health services is less difficult to obtain than back home in Kosovo?
Much of the diaspora has contributed to economic investment into Kosovo and often acts as a financial support system for relatives back home. Just this year, the diaspora has recently focused their efforts on helping to change the political landscape of Kosovo. These are not minimal undertakings and are extremely valuable in their own way. However, they are not enough by themselves to address the effects that war and displacement has had for Kosovo Albanians globally.
The need for culturally sensitive mental health services
A crucial aspect of recovery for the diaspora, our families and friends back home includes a genuine awareness and desire to address the mental health effect that war and forced immigration has on many of our members. These two factors alone are major factors for developing mental health conditions.
The experience of being an immigrant itself puts you at a greater risk of suffering from mental health issues. Diaspora networks can be a key coping mechanism for immigrants to help offset the mental health issues and alienation that is often experienced when settling into a new country.
It is hard to conceptualize just how neglected many in our communities are in terms of support for their mental health conditions.
Sadly, Kosovo Albanian diaspora networks do not go far enough to be a source of resiliency or belonging for those with mental health problems. In fact, they ensure greater alienation for our members with mental health conditions. Changing attitudes within the diaspora could help those in our communities who need mental health support and there is real potential in our diaspora networks for this. Yet shame ridden messages surrounding mental health conditions means that this is nowhere to be found.
Having supported a family member with their mental health issues and seeing the isolating affect their mental health has had on them for the past few years, it has become apparent to me that culturally sensitive mental health services are a crucial step in their recovery that is missing.
Sadly, in the UK as well as other parts of the world where the Kosovar Albanian diaspora are situated, culturally sensitive mental health services do not exist for the community, and informal support from the diaspora is also nonexistent.
Culturally sensitive services are one of the paths to recovery that could be addressed to help our members who struggle with mental illness but twenty years after the war, this has not happened. The reason for this is undoubtedly due to the taboo associated with mental health conditions in our communities; but these resources are very much needed for Albanians and for one family member of mine — perhaps a key part of the puzzle in their recovery.
The diaspora role
Members of the diaspora need to detangle how inherited shame-based narratives have affected postwar recovery and development. We need conversations, collective organizing, and the willingness to engage in a proactive way with members struggling with their mental health.
It is hard to conceptualize just how neglected many in our communities are in terms of support for their mental health conditions, due to the silence in our culture that permeates when it comes to any discussion of mental health. However, one thing is for certain, mental health issues are a fundamentally global phenomenon. Albanians can no longer ignore a universally human subject in our public discourse any longer.
It is wonderful to see the power the diaspora has in helping Kosovo change a decade of political corruption by political engagement. As a member of the diaspora, it seems imperative to me that we also consider other aspects of development. Mental health is an area of development that as a collective we should have open and honest conversations about in order to address the mental health needs of our communities.
The diaspora has a crucial role in starting these conversations. With less barriers to basic mental health services, we are privileged that our work is mostly left toward detangling shame-based narratives. We cannot allow those narratives to impede on the ability for many in our communities to seek treatment for their mental health.
Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.