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A Woman’s Search for Mental Health — Beyond Medication

Editor’s Note: Many Americans seek prescription medication to manage stress, anxiety and depression. But for some, the pills become a problem in their own right. As part of our first-person series “What’s Your Story?” Sabirah Mustafa of Oakland Voices tells how she and her doctor came up with another approach. 

By Sabirah Mustafa

When Sabirah Mustafa was suffering from depression, she found that medication wasn’t the best prescription for her. (Shuka Kalantari/KQED)

I used to wish for a magic pill that would enable me to swallow away my problems, so I could successfully navigate my unfulfilled life. But when I found it, it wasn’t in any pharmacy. For many years I suffered from trauma and abuse, but I saw them as symptoms of a soul struggling to find answers in a question complicated life.

I wasn’t necessarily searching for easy solutions, just a way to cope with it all. When my doctor became aware of the overwhelming helplessness and sadness I felt, he prescribed medication he thought would help. But the debilitating side-effects were terrible. My environment appeared apart and distant from me. My mind and body felt out of sync with how I moved and spoke, which made me feel awkward and self-conscious. Joy, anger, sympathy and other emotions non-medicated people experience routinely were lost to me. I began to doubt not just the meds’ function, but also their purpose. When I complained about their side effects, my medications were adjusted, but the adjustments would transform one problem into another.

Roller coaster treatment finally reached a conclusion one day, when I saw my primary physician for chest pain and difficulty breathing. “Let’s talk,” he said.

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After Surviving Shooting, Oakland Youth Works to Prevent Violence

Caheri Gutierrez, before the shooting.

Caheri Gutierrez, before the shooting.

Last weekend was an especially violent one, even for Oakland. On Friday, four people were killed, and over the rest of the weekend, 11 people were shot, though not fatally. There were 126 homicides [PDF] in Oakland last year, cementing the city’s distinction as one of California’s more violent urban centers. Oakland certainly doesn’t have a lock on gun violence. Other cities like Stockton are struggling, too. But the situation in Oakland has been going on for some time now, and locals are giving a lot of thought to what it means to live under the constant threat of violence.

As part of KQED’s occasional series, “What’s Your Story,” Oakland native Caheri Gutierrez (pronounced “Carrie”) shares her story about working with at-risk high schools students after she herself was shot in the face as a teenager. Guiterrez is a Violence Prevention Educator for Youth Alive, an Oakland non-profit with a mission to prevent youth violence. Below are excerpts of my conversation with her:

“‘They shot you. They shot you.’ I touched my face and my hand just went inside of my face.”

“I was just in the car and all of a sudden I started to feel like I was getting electrified. It was really intense shocks from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet. The guy that was driving, my friend, starts screaming that he’s been shot. Continue reading

Lead Levels in Oakland May Exacerbate Burmese Refugee Children’s Health

A Burmese family rest in a temporary camp on the Thai/Burma border. (    Rusty Stewart: Flickr)

A Burmese family rest in a temporary camp on the Thai/Burma border. (Rusty Stewart: Flickr)

Some Burmese refugee children heading to the U.S. have toxic levels of lead in the blood, according to a study released this week in the journal Pediatrics. Researchers at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention measured lead levels in Burmese children living in Thai refugee camps. They found that children under age two were at highest risk. Fifteen percent of them had lead poisoning, as did five percent of all children. That compares to less than one percent of all children in the U.S. [PDF] But Burmese refugee children who resettle in Oakland may not be very safe against lead exposure, once they arrive here.

Joan Jeung, a pediatrician who works with Burmese refugees at Asian Health Services in Oakland, was quick to identify the problem. “Moving from a low-income area and conditions of political oppression in Burma, to low-income areas here in the United States where environmental lead levels area still high, I think the quickest link to find is poverty.”

About 400 Burmese refugees resettled in Oakland since 2007, and the majority are living in extreme poverty, with many families surviving on less than $1,000 a month, according to a joint study by San Francisco State University and the Burma Refugee Family Network. In addition nearly two-thirds of them are unemployed.

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