“Whatever you hide, also hides you”: A discourse analysis on mental health and service use in an American community of Somalis

Georgia J. Michlig, Crista Johnson-Agbakwu, Pamela J. Surkan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


After decades of refugee displacement, Somalis are at increased risk for poor mental health. However, uptake of treatment referrals in primary care is low among Somalis compared to other refugee groups. The objective of this analysis was to understand specific resistances to US mental health care contributing to this gap in coverage. One hundred and sixty-eight Somali men and women over the age of 14, participated in 28 focus group from October 2017 to November 2018 discussing wellbeing and healthcare in the US. Transcripts were analyzed based on critical discourse theory, informed by the theoretical work of Michel Foucault. This study identified two primary discourses, one biomedical and the other driven by Somali community mental health knowledge and social practice. Mental health as an object of Muslim faith, nosological fusion of psychiatric illness terms, and stigmatization and internal social control to limit disclosure were discussed. US mental health services were described as giving off a bad vibe, and represented external institutions of power, exacerbated by perceived discrimination. Somali youth occupied social bridging positions between cultural vs. US knowledge and practice. Three negotiating discourses emerged wherein participants created discursive solutions to these sites of resistance, including 1) how the social acceptability of seeking psychological care might be increased while maintaining Somali emotional resilience, 2) stressing the need to seek medical care as a practical supplement to spiritual care, and 3) highlighting the need for Somali youth to enter health fields. Findings suggest that intervention strategies not only ensure that services are culturally appropriate and sensitive to religion, but also consider that services are potentially seen as both an extension of US institutional power and an affront to Somali identity making. Overcoming these challenges may involve nurturing the negotiating discourses taken up by communities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number114563
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
StatePublished - Jan 2022


  • Discourse
  • Health service use
  • Mental health
  • Refugee
  • Somali

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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