Student helps refugees fight cultural taboos

Portland State student Behjat Sedighi has spent the past 12 years working with refugees and immigrants battling mental illness in an effort to provide them a second chance at happiness.

Portland State student Behjat Sedighi has spent the past 12 years working with refugees and immigrants battling mental illness in an effort to provide them a second chance at happiness.

Sedighi, a mental health counselor, is only one of many psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors and therapists working with OHSU’s Intercultural Psychiatric Program, which aims to provide mental health services for immigrants, refugees and ethnic communities.

Fluent in Farsi and Kurdish, Sedighi works mostly with adults and children who have come to America from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. Whatever country one is from, all cultures treat mental illness differently, she explained.

“Big taboo and big stigma come with mental illness in many cultures,” Sedighi said. These taboos and stigmas are what IPP specializes in dealing with.

With a staff that includes 16 counselors, eight part-time physicians and services offered in more than 15 languages, IPP has been providing mental illness treatment that is highly culturally sensitive for more than 35 years.

Each group works with a counselor from a shared country or ethnic background.

“Somali refugees get counseled by a Somali counselor, [and] the number-one benefit of this is the knowledge of their language and culture,” she said. Understanding cultural differences helps physicians make the right diagnoses.

Once diagnosed, a team of both psychiatrists and counselors work together to treat each client’s mental illness. Treatment can be a variety of different approaches, from group therapy to individual counseling, as well as medication management.

Beyond simply treating the mental illness, IPP makes it a priority to ensure that their clients have a better grasp on the illness itself. At IPP, “people get more educated and have a better understanding of mental illness,” Sedighi said.

She explained that better understanding paired with correct treatment helps people feel normal.

“It also helps with getting a job and holding a job,” Sedighi said. This can be difficult enough with cultural and language differences.

While the beginning of the journey of treating a mental illness may seem difficult and unfamiliar, Sedighi explains, it is the outcome that she lives for.

“When a client first comes in stressed or broken, without a job, then after treatment comes back and says, ‘I didn’t think this could help,’ or ‘I didn’t know I could feel this normal’—that is my reward,” she said.

Having emigrated from Iran herself, Sedighi says she relates deeply with these people and found herself drawn to the work she does.

“I love working with people, and I love working with refugees and immigrants, [who are] so vulnerable. It feels good to help.”

She also notes that she has always felt the need to contribute to society by helping others. After double-majoring in Persian language and psychology back home in Iran, once in Portland Sedighi eventually fed that need to help by working for OHSU’s IPP program.

Sedighi returned to school to pursue a bachelor’s degree in psychology at PSU.

IPP director Dr. Paul Leung describes Sedighi as “a very experienced and dedicated mental health professional,” noting that she is also in a leadership role that helps IPP monitor the quality of care given to its clients.

Sedighi’s message to students and faculty at PSU is, “Don’t just ignore your coworker or classmate if they are talking or showing behavior that is abnormal for that individual.” Instead, she said, let them know that there is help.

“Do not be afraid to seek help when you don’t feel right—even if it is a mental illness.”