Program fights stigma of mental health help in Armenian community

A mental health program targeted at the Armenian community is struggling to meet its annual service goal, due in part, organizers say, to the cultural stigma attached to seeking help.

For the past 10 months, the program through Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services — called ARMUNITY — has been trying to break through that stigma, but with the first anniversary approaching in March, organizers say they’ve only met about half their goal of serving 60 clients.

“Historically we’ve always just held the issues inside the family, not taken it outside…it’s been a difficult step for the elders to expose their issues,” said Arsineh Ararat, program coordinator for ARMUNITY.

Didi Hirsch received a three-year grant for $2.3 million from the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health Services to launch the program, said agency spokeswoman Karen Zarsadiaz-Ige.

ARMUNITY provides substance abuse medical care through the nonprofit All For Health, Health For All clinic in Glendale and holistic care through Rasmik Mesrkhani Chiropractic.

Ararat said anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder — known as PTSD — are the most common mental illnesses in the Armenian community. PTSD is especially common in Armenian immigrants from war-torn countries such as Lebanon, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Ararat, a licensed marriage and family therapist, said getting those afflicted with mental issues to open up and seek help can be a challenge since issues of denial can also be a factor in the Armenian community.

“People say ‘This doesn’t exist in our community, this wouldn’t happen to an Armenian,’” Ararat said.

To expand its reach, ARMUNITY is offered in Armenian and English.

The program is funded through Proposition 63, the Mental Health Services Act, which levies a 1% tax on personal income over $1 million a year.

Sixty percent of the program’s patients are uninsured, with the rest insured through Medi-Cal, the state Medicaid welfare program.

Hrayr Sherikian, an administrator at the St. Gregory Armenian Church in Glendale, said he was looking forward to working with the group, which hosted its first event at the church on Jan. 8.

And he said he was especially happy that the program focused on uninsured and underinsured patients.

“We always need these kinds of programs,” Sherikian said. “I think the community in general — not necessarily just the Armenian community — they need attention and they need help and they need assistance."


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