Class acts: Abram Saroufim – La Source
Abram Saroufim found social work through trial and error and a bit of luck.
He originally planned to be a doctor and majored in chemistry at Cornell University. But when it came time to enroll in the MCAT, Saroufim realized he didn’t really care about medicine. So he went to work as a tutor, thinking maybe education was the right field. And, indeed, Saroufim loved the concert, but not the teaching part.
“It was the mentoring and coaching that I found really rewarding,” recalls Saroufim. “That’s when I thought counseling would be my way of helping people.”
Later, Saroufim met a stranger on a park bench in Union Square Park in New York. He was expecting a friend; she was on the phone, arranging care for a client struggling with an opioid addiction.
“I don’t know what prompted me to talk to him, but I turned around and said, ‘Busy day?’ and asked her what she was doing,” recalls Saroufim, a New Jersey native. “She told me she was a licensed social worker working on her clinical hours. At the time, I was thinking clinical psychology or mental health counseling. But then she explained that social workers can be therapists and they have the ability to go into any other field, be it politics, community work or just about anything in between. the two. This flexibility was exactly what I wanted.
Saroufim decided to continue his graduate studies at the Brown School of Washington University in St. Louis. He focused on mental health and completed an internship with LifeWork, a provider of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and counseling for adults, teens, and families in the St. Louis area. He has also worked as a research assistant on a project to improve educational equity in Afghanistan and Pakistan and was a social work intern for Arch City Defenders, a holistic legal advocacy organization.
After graduation, Saroufim wants to help develop culturally appropriate interventions to support mental health in immigrant communities in the United States and, later, in different countries around the world.
“Different people view mental health differently,” Saroufim said. “My goal is to first develop my skills as a therapist and then share that experience in other countries and learn from community leaders. How do people conceptualize mental wellness? do they need to achieve this level of wellness?Together we can find effective treatment and community programs.
Saroufim’s interest in global mental health is rooted in his travels. The child of Egyptian immigrants, Saroufim served in the Peace Corps in Liberia and worked as a home health aide for mentally disabled adults in Mexico City. At home and abroad, he met people struggling with mental health issues. But attitudes about mental health and access to care can vary widely from place to place.
Take, for example, Liberia.
“The people of Libera are very good at joking around and don’t take themselves too seriously,” Saroufim said. “But that means sometimes they don’t take themselves seriously enough. I’ve only seen people cry at funerals because there’s this perspective that the only thing worth crying for is losing a member of the community.
He observed a similar phenomenon in Mexico, where a friend and mother of three hid her struggles from friends and family members.
“In her culture, mothers are supposed to be the rock,” Saroufim said. “Admitting otherwise would bring shame.”
Even at home, Saroufim rarely heard members of his Coptic community use the Arabic word for “depressed.” Fewer still are the immigrants who seek therapy. There is a nagging perception in all of these places that people seeking help are weak, deranged or lacking in faith, Saroufim observed.
“I will hear that you should pray for your problems to go away,” Saroufim said. “As a Christian, I believe in prayer. But I also believe that we need to eliminate the stigma around mental health and treatment. My goal is not to force people into therapy, just to show them that it is an option on the journey to mental wellness. What I want is for people to say, ‘Oh, are you going to therapy? Costs.'”