Isra Hussain, MCAS '17, was recently featured in a Huffington Post article covering her research and advocacy work in the mental health field. Hussain is a Presidential Scholar majoring in Psychology and minoring in Arabic Studies--a line of study she puts to work promoting mental health awareness among Southeast Asians, Muslims, women, and minority groups in the United States. One of her biggest concerns is the stigmatization of mental health and how it prevents those suffering from mental illness from receiving the help they need.
Hussain first forayed into the mental health field after visiting relatives in Pakistan and seeing her autistic cousin in a state of deep depression. He had been kicked out of school and deprived of help because of the stigma and misunderstanding surrounding his condition.
Hussain and her cousin were playmates as children, and it struck her how vastly different their lives were now. “Everything kind of crumbled for me,” Hussain said. “What made me so angry was that society didn’t let him live a life that the rest of us are able to live, because of this disability.”
Feeling privileged to have grown up in America and to have received a great education, Hussain felt mental health was her calling, so she began searching for ways to get involved through research and internship opportunities.
In her sophomore year, Hussain interned at Rosie’s Place, a shelter for homeless women in Boston. There she worked in dining services and was able to form deep connections with the women she encountered.
She gained an understanding of the impact culture and minority status has on women suffering from mental illness and also realized, through her interactions with disadvantaged women from diverse backgrounds, the commonality among all people--no matter their background.
“At the end everyone is human," she said. “We all have the same desires, regardless of who we are or where we come from.” Hussain's experience at Rosie’s Place solidified for her the human element in the mental health issue and galvanized her to continue learning about it.
Currently, Hussain conducts research on mental health within Latino communities at the Harvard Medical Center. She is the only undergraduate student working in the unit, where a lot of the other researchers have extensive experience in the field.
Her work can be stressful as her responsibilities continue to grow, but Hussain is using this opportunity to learn and prove her abilities. “I am just a small fish in a big pond, but by working hard they’re going to see the potential I have," said Hussain. She was surprised and reassured by the fact that the research unit was not concerned with her major or GPA, but instead looked at what she did outside of school and where her interests and passions lie.
Hussain's special interest in South Asian communities comes from her own Pakistani roots. Hussein grew up in America but her parents are both immigrants from Pakistan. She is taking steps to master Arabic and Urdu so that she will be able to establish rapport with the communities she intends to work in.
Last summer, she traveled to India to study Urdu on a U.S. State Department Critical Language Scholarship. Although the express purpose of her trip was to learn the language, Hussain emphasized that the experiences she had were what truly opened her eyes to the culture.
One of the things that struck her was the plight of women in India: “Sexism is much more apparent over there,” said Hussain. “There are a lot of societal expectations placed on women in India and a basic lack of respect.” As a result, Indian women are under a lot of stress but are denied an outlet through which to express themselves. Hussain felt frustrated by the situation and realized the pressing need for mental health resources there for women in particular.
Hussain considers the stigmatization of mental illness to be an especially pernicious issue. Mental illness is often not seen as a real problem because it is invisible and intangible. The stigma is pervasive in South Asian countries and in the U.S., racial minorities are the most affected by it.
As a result, not enough resources are dedicated towards treating mental illness, and people suffering from it do not seek help. “If you have a broken leg, people will talk about it and tell you to seek treatment,” Hussain said. “But people won’t talk about mental illness even though the harm is just as real.”
Hussain hopes to make mental health just as important as physical health, and she aims to do that by focusing on big picture, long-term solutions that could be applied on a world scale. She is especially interested in working with mental illness in trauma situations and post-war conflict zones, as well as helping refugees to make sure their mental health needs are satisfied.
In the future, Hussain plans to work with global health policy in international organizations such as the UN and WHO. “I don’t know how I’m going to get there yet, but I’m taking baby steps,” Hussain said.
When asked what keeps her motivated, Hussain said it is mostly the fear of being too comfortable. “My work is what keeps me going and gets me awake in the morning,” she said. “I love doing it, and without all of that I wouldn’t know who I am. If I’m not doing something to make the world a better place, I don’t feel comfortable.”