Pace Per Mendje aims to split mental health stigma through sharing
by - Enriketa Rexha

Although culture is a celebration of collective consciousness that has progressed through history, it can – and has in many cases become a dangerously linear label used to control and classify very outdated, misogynistic and harmful practices.

Reducing certain behaviours to mere ‘culture’ is to reduce the complexities of lived experiences we have as individuals, it is to do the same thing, think the same way over years and years whilst the rest of the world continues to progress just so you can belong to the ‘culture’. Culture preys on peoples needs to be accepted and not to be the ‘black sheep’ that everyone talks about, it shames people into silence. We know this because our own Albanian culture is, in part, responsible for being linear and closed off.

As a result, more and more young people have experienced mental health issues at the hands of cultural expectations. Someone that knows this better than most people is Besmira, who since the age of 12 has had this weighing in on her mental health. Realising there is power in splitting the stigma through sharing, she decided to start her own page, Pace Per Mendje which aims to share stories and research of mental health within Albania and the UK.

Here, Besmira speaks honestly about her experiences of dealing with mental health and why 2018 prompted her to start her journey through Pace Per Mendje.

What was the reason you created the page and where do you see it going?

2018 was one of the craziest, conflicted years of my life and a huge wake up call too. I began to struggle in dealing with things on my own which was something I wasn’t used to as I thought I was pretty good at that. I had a lot of controversy with my family and although this isn’t something new to me, it was very close to my heart and so made it more explosive.

Having various conversations with a vast majority of my relatives made me realise that the Albanian culture is very outdated. It fails to understand most new things and fails to attempt to understand anything that is unnatural to them.

“I view my page as an escapism from the world; a place of acceptance and support and wish for this concept to grow worldwide in order to create a less prejudice, discriminative and misunderstood world. “

– Besmira

During the summer of 2018, I became very isolated from the world and a little bit lost. After weeks of hibernating and not speaking to anybody about what was happening, I opened up and it was one of the greatest feelings ever. It was such a satisfying and uplifting feeling to have somebody listen without passing judgement or dismissing you.

This is where my drive started. This page is to support anybody of any age and any background to understand that there is always somebody there to listen. This combined with my field of work as a support worker for the mentally ill, I thought, was a good combination as it allows me to understand and guide those with mental health issues too.

I view my page as an escapism from the world; a place of acceptance and support and wish for this concept to grow worldwide in order to create a less prejudice, discriminative and misunderstood world.

Why do you feel like we as a culture we can’t talk about mental health?

Mental health isn’t something that most people like to talk about, especially people with a lot of pride, and Albania – as a country – is extremely prideful. I think many Albanian people divert from addressing mental health as it may appear degrading or shameful to admit struggle and the need for support. In Albania, from a young age, children are taught to think in particular ways and are not educated in the mental health field. This continues throughout life and becomes a never-ending cycle from generation to generation, only strengthening people’s ignorance toward the subject.

Is there any advice you would give to people suffering with mental health issues, more so, what advice would you give to people with limited access to counsellors or anyone they can talk to?

In the UK, approximately 1 in 4 people experience a mental health problem yearly. (I was unable to retrieve the same statistics for Albania due to the lack of coverage surrounding the subject). A piece of intelligence I would give a person struggling with mental health problems is that they are not alone. Most people struggle, and more are asking for help. It is not something to be ashamed of but something to embrace in order to help others help each other. One main piece of advice I would give to anybody suffering from any mental health issues, minor or severe, is to talk to somebody. I know that it isn’t always easy to admit defeat or the need for help, but at times, the greatest help is just somebody to listen to you. An open ear; with no response; no judgment; no opinion.

“I find comfort in my experience of talking to somebody who doesn’t know me, my life or my history. They have no connection and can be completely impartial and balanced.”

This can be anybody… a friend, a family member, a partner or a teacher. The difficulty about this is that, the people closest to you are always going to be immediately attached and involved. This is why I find comfort in my experience of talking to somebody who doesn’t know me, my life or my history. They have no connection and can be completely impartial and balanced.

For those who have limited access to paid professionals such as counsellors or therapists, there are many helplines and blogs that offer support. A few examples I can list are: Samaritans, SANEline, PennyBelle.

This is the help that I hope my page can bring to some people’s lives. Another piece of advice I would give is to always take part in activities that make you happy – whether this be reading, writing, drawing, sports, shopping or anything else.

Keeping your mind positively active and responsive allows for less room for negative thoughts and feelings. Speaking of being active, physical activity is also an effective way of dealing with mental health problems as it relieves tension and stress by releasing endorphins in the body. Keeping fit improves concentration, motivation and your mood, further improving various mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, ADHD and PTSD.

Do you feel comfortable sharing any experiences you have had yourself, or anyone close to you that has inspired you to make a change?

I have experienced various things throughout my life that have made me very self-aware from an extremely young age, whilst also putting a lot of strain on my mental health over the years. Although I wish for some of the things to never happen to another person, I am also very grateful that they happened to me, in order to allow me to be where I am today and be able to make a difference.

“From the age of 12, I have been asked to engage in arranged marriages with some guys being much older, some not knowing my name and some not even living in the same country as me. I have continuously avoided and refuted these situations, however, they have not been diverted from my attention.”

With that being said, some of the things I have endured involve: sexual advances, physical abuse, educational burdens and racial differences.

Being an only daughter in an Albanian household comes with a lot of expectation and pressure. I personally believe that many of these expectations encourage mental health problems within the Albanian female community.

From the age of 12, I have been asked to engage in arranged marriages with some guys being much older, some not knowing my name and some not even living in the same country as me. I have continuously avoided and refuted these situations, however, they have not been diverted from my attention.

This is an experience that most Albanian girls encounter, no matter where they live or what age, it’s a cultural expectation – a notion which needs to be erased. No female should ever feel objectified, causing feelings of self-loathe, worthlessness and insignificance. At the age of 15 is when I began to recognise mental health issues and their causes and effects. This occurred when one of my friends began to self-harm during secondary school. This experience helped me understand that many things can affect a person’s mental state. For my friend, these things mainly included her body image and school friendship groups. These may appear minor to some people, however, bullying is one of the highest rated reasons for suicide within children and young people.

This situation encouraged me to help prevent bullying and promote a healthy body image throughout my teenage years and continuously now in my adult life. A final and very personal experience which I feel is important to share is the issue surrounding race relations – especially within the Albanian culture.

“This is a huge concern and growing concern as more and more females are beginning to stray from the ‘ideal’ Albanian expectations set for them and suffering alone. This has inspired me more so to work in the Albanian community, in an attempt to create harmony and the understanding that everybody is equal and to further prevent any more women from falling into mental health issues due to a culture that they’re born into.”

Albanians are known to maintain their culture and tradition solely and are shamed by one-another for breaking barriers. As beautiful as the idea is to maintain something so precious, I think the world is evolving greatly and people’s minds need to evolve with it.

I know of many females who struggle deeply with exposing relationships that they may have with men from other cultures and races. Females who live in fear, emotional, verbal and physical abuse due to ignorant family members. Females who are disowned and made homeless for falling in love with someone who is deemed ‘different’.

This is a huge concern and growing concern as more and more females are beginning to stray from the ‘ideal’ Albanian expectations set for them and suffering alone. This has inspired me more so to work in the Albanian community, in an attempt to create harmony and the understanding that everybody is equal and to further prevent any more women from falling into mental health issues due to a culture that they’re born into.

How can we all change as individuals to be better at helping our family and friends who may be dealing with mental health issues?

“All anybody can attempt to do is simply be less judgmental and more open-minded. Perspective is the only thing one can change. There are many things one can improve though.”

To support someone with a mental health problem, you must be patient, patient with yourself and with the person you’re supporting. Understanding something so delicate and complex isn’t going to happen overnight, and so isn’t getting better. Both parties must be persistent in the process. Another thing one can improve on is educating themselves on the illness their loved one is facing. This can be done through books, websites and blogs. Blogs are extremely helpful ways of understanding real life situations as it’s an ideal place for people to share their personal experiences of similar things. Taking the needed time to come to term with and understand a mental illness is essential and a necessity throughout life.

Do you feel like your page could be support more? If so, how?

Yes, I believe my page could be supported and promoted more, but having just started, it seems fair to be where I am. I remember someone said to me recently to ‘speak more Albanian’ on my page but I was just stuck because it’s only ever my followers from the UK that interact so yeah, I definitely think that more Albanian publicity would help to get a wider understanding and ability to help people.

I aim to travel to Albania this year to conduct a mental health related survey in order to increase my knowledge and hopefully share some too. I haven’t yet decided what it’s going to entail but I’ll let you guys know how it goes.