Gevorg Gharibyan

Erasing Stigma of Mental Health in Armenia Is Hard Work


WATERTOWN — The people of Armenia, like those of many other traditional cultures, tend to shun discussions about mental health and even if they seek help, consider speaking about it taboo. One group, Mental Health Awareness Initiative (MHAI), is trying to change that mindset.

The non-governmental organization (NGO) MHAI was founded by Gevorg Gharibyan, Artak Begoyan and Ani Asatryan in Yerevan in May 2021, in the aftermath of the devastating war. “We saw the need,” Gharibyan said in an interview earlier this summer. “The founding members of the organization established a support system to bridge the gap [for mental health access] through the promotion of mental health awareness.”

Mental health disorders know no boundaries and respect no traditions. According to the World Health Organization’s figures from 2019, 1 in every 8 people  — or 970 million people around the world — were living with a mental disorder, with anxiety and depressive disorders the most common. In 2020, the number of people living with anxiety and depressive disorders rose significantly because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Gharibyan, MHAI is trying to “normalize mental health conditions,” as Armenia has higher incidences than many countries. “The higher estimate of 38 percent of Armenians suffering from mental health issues is 13 percent higher than the World Health Organization’s (WHO) universal estimates, which state that approximately 25 percent of people worldwide have a mental health condition,” he said, according to a study at the Ballard Center of Brigham Young University.

Both in Armenia as well as in the diaspora, Armenians seem hesitant to get help for mental health issues. Gharibyan explained that MHAI is working on efforts to not only help those suffering from mental health issues but also give tools to the sufferers’ loved ones to help them where possible.

Gharibyan said that “every person in their lifetime needs to have the language and tools to help those in need,” adding that he and his fellow co-founders “saw a need there.”

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Gharibyan is a mental health advocate, speaker and researcher. He is a UK-licensed chartered psychologist (CPsychol), an American Psychological Association associate and a British Psychological Society Psychotherapy Section Committee member. A Queen Mary University of London postgraduate trainee in mental health (modern psychological therapies), Gharibyan is a co-founder of the Millennial Psychologist mental health portal that provides mental health support internationally.

Gharibyan, with an advisor to the group, Laura Bilazarian Purutyan, who is based in Massachusetts, spoke about the efforts when he was in town for an event at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). The program, titled “The Role of Mental Health Awareness in Minority Communities,” came as a result of trying to speak about the treatment of mental health among minority groups in Massachusetts and their approaches to the issue.

Purutyan said that for her, the MHAI is a valuable tool because it offers a “rigorous, professional approach and on a human level it is bringing the issues to the surface” in a way that is “culturally sensitive and accurate.”

One of the reasons the organizers decided to have the program at NAASR was for a chance to connect with likeminded professional and form possible partnerships, such as, for example with the Alzheimer’s Association or the Jean Appollon Expressions, a Haitian-American organization. Facilitating such networking locally was done by the Armenian Heritage Park board member Dr. Armineh Mirzabegian.

Gharibyan said that the next step for his organization is to establish “very healthy partnerships inside and outside Armenia.” Among those with which MHAI has already established ties are the British Psychological Society and American Psychological Association.

The group is also establishing a library, partly with the support of the American Psychological Association.

There are many issues that are affecting the population of Armenia emotionally, Purutyan said. “The issues that cause a struggle in Armenia are distinct” from those in the US, she explained. Between wars and the earthquake, not to mention a tough economic outlet, the population has gone through much.

The main issues that the population in Armenia faces in terms of mental health are depression, anxiety and substance abuse, Gharibyan said.

Purutyan is a Workforce Development and Community Relations Specialist with the McAuliffe Center for Integrated Science Learning at Framingham State University. She is also a board member of Girls Inc. of Worcester, which empowers girls to be strong, smart and bold.

Laura Bilazarian Purutyan

Urging acceptance for everyone is a central tenet for the group. As Gharibyan explained, the NGO will also have “zero tolerance toward discrimination and take a scientific approach to help mental health,” he added.

The organization does not want to “reinvent the wheel” when it comes to providing mental health, he said, but to tailor it to Armenia specific cultural sensitivities. To that end, Gharibyan said, the group has launched a social media campaign about the benefits of receiving help for mental health as well as support for caregivers of those with mental health concerns.

Gharibyan said that the organization is actively fundraising to help spread their message and to implement their plans.

His reason is simple, he said: “Only a healthy society can be prosperous. Only if they have the tools and resources they need” can they succeed.

For example, he said, people need to understand that “living with schizophrenia does not make you a monster.”

The organization has gotten positive feedback, he said. For example, he noted, a young man wrote to the organization that “I was about to commit suicide and I saw your post,” and changed his mind. Such reactions, he said, “Melt my heart.”

One issue they are trying to tackle is that in Armenia, therapists or other mental health providers are not licensed. In addition, much of the care is provided on an inpatient basis at mental institutions rather than outpatient sessions.

“It is an out-of-date model,” he said. Once a sufferer is institutionalized, even temporarily, they can lose touch with their community, who can support them in this difficult time, he explained. At this difficult time, they said, the sufferers should not be “cut off from their community.”

Thus, Gharibyan said, they are offering campaigns and programs to “tackle the stigma and debunk myths.”

In addition, Gharibyan and Purutyan spoke about the need for finding a new language and framework to discuss mental health as well as neurodivergent conditions such as autism, dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Another topic has been the mental health of gay youth, who often face ostracism in society in Armenia.

Another area being studied and implemented for Armenia is the psychological effect of genocide and generational trauma. Armenians, Gharibyan said, suffer from historically complex trauma passed down to the conscious and subconscious levels of the current generation.

To start the dialogue initially, MHAI hosted a livestream shortly after the war which registered as having only a dozen or so people watching. However, within a couple of hours, the program had racked up more than 1,000 viewers who could watch anonymously and submit questions without registering for the live viewing. Clearly, he said, there was a need for such programs, but participants still wanted anonymity.

Gevorg Gharibyan in the UK with fellow students at Queen Mary University

The group has also worked on creating a suicide prevention hotline and is working toward establishing an emotional support number. By September, the phone number (8642) will be in place. The suicide hotline will not be 24/7 at the time being, since it does not have enough staffing.

“It is important to be able to step above my pain is greater than yours and to be able to connect with one another on a human level,” he said.

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