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KPBS Midday Edition

El Cajon Shooting Victim Was Grieving Death Of Friend

Jama Mohamed discusses his research on mental health among East Africans, Sept. 28, 2016.
Katie Schoolov
Jama Mohamed discusses his research on mental health among East Africans, Sept. 28, 2016.

UPDATE: 4:40 p.m., Sept. 29, 2016

The mother of Alfred Olango, an unarmed Ugandan refugee who was fatally shot by El Cajon police, said her son did not have a history of mental illness.

Pamela Benge said Olango was having an emotional breakdown during his encounter with police, due to the recent death of a close friend named Bereket Demsse.

"He couldn't handle it, he was just running around," she said. "He needed someone to calm him down ... not to come and just finish his life."

Original Story

Jama Mohamed, program coordinator for "Making Connections For Mental Health," which seeks to improve the well-being of East Africans in San Diego, said Olango showed signs of mental illness that are not uncommon in East African refugees.

Researcher: El Cajon Shooting Victim May Have Been Mentally Ill
Researcher: El Cajon Shooting Victim May Have Been Mentally Ill GUESTS: Jama Mohamed, program coordinator, United Women of East Africa Sheila Savannah, director, Prevention Institute

You are listening to KPBS midday edition. Alfred Olango the man shot dead with a refugee from Uganda East Africa. The tragedy of his death gives us a window of opportunity to look at that community living here in San Diego. Also to become more sensitive to them. Jama Mohamed is also a refugee. He is the program coordinator with a group in San Diego. They are advocating for better ways of dealing for better ways. Jama did not know Trent -- Olango. Jama think you for joining us. We also have Sheila savanna from prevention Institute. Sheila caught thank you for being with us. Jama, to start off how is that East African community reacting to the death of Alfred Olango ? The community is not comfortable. Before this happened there was a lot of mistrust between law enforcement and the community. Right now it is worse. The level of trust with authority is even higher. There is lots of mistrust in the community. Some of Olango family said he was dealing with mental health issues. Your group has done research of men after noticing suicides of young men. Wise mental health such a important issue for the community and specifically meant. Unfortunate that East African community were never addressed when it comes to mental health. It's a refugee community and people may not understand when it comes to mental health. We have factors that keeps the community away from mental health issues. Sheila your group is partnering with Jama group. How would you describe the key challenges that East Africans are not getting the mental health care they need. One of our focuses is to look at the environment. Circumstances on the one that happened create a higher level of anxiety and you couple with the fact that men and boys find it hard to seek help and find help that is culturally responsive for them makes it harder for them to get help services or get engaged in mental health services. I think the environmental factors like lack of employment, education and environments that are not supported in helping make adjustments and understanding the ways that boys and men experience coping challenges. Jama you were in a Kenyan refugee camp. Alfred Olango was in a Uganda. There similar cultural of mental illness. There is a stigma with mental health. You look at the concept from the East African community and you look at their perception, mental health thinking any new arrival immigrants it's seen as something as negative. I think the level of addressing these issues is the solution. We need to address these issues and inform the community that these diseases do exist and it's normal to come out and talk about these issues. If those services and opportunities are not provided in their own comfort zone then it's difficult for them to communicate with the community and talk to what they are struggling with. You did not know Trent eight but you had a mutual friend. From what I understood he was friends with one of the young men who committed suicide. From the picture that I've seen they were close. The guy that committed suicide I knew him. He's to live in the same community. I knew that guy who committed suicide. There has to be ties to the level of impact of the mental health. The adjustment coming from a refugee camp experience -- must put strains on the community. I understand suicide is more common in the community than in a wider community. It has become common. We see the trends. That's why we have the opportunity to intercept the problem and address the issues now. The last several years we had six suicide. We begin to notice trends and we need to intervene and address these issues. Sheila what steps do need to be taken to prevent this situation. Training our law enforcement and also training others in the community so that the call that his sister made does not have to be to the police. That there are other options for people who have mental health crisis. We need more funding in mental health. We need more funding in prevention. Things that help communities prepare their neighbors, residents and that kind of training can happen for everyone so we can be a better support network for people that struggle with mental health. Jama Mohamed, program coordinator, Rnited Women of East Africa thank you for being here. Sheila Savannah, director, Prevention Institute thank you for being here as well. Thank you.

Researcher: El Cajon Shooting Victim May Have Been Mentally Ill
Jama Mohamed, who researches mental health issues in San Diego's community of East Africans, says grief, trauma and fear may have collided in an encounter with police.

Mohamed works with United Women of East Africa to connect immigrants and refugees from East Africa with services to reduce depression, suicidal tendencies and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"There may be mental health services already, but in terms of being culturally appropriate, it's not there," he said.

Mohamed said East African immigrants often have a history of exposure to trauma. Even if they didn't experience war in their home countries firsthand, they struggle with the stress of the loved ones who did.

He said this trauma often manifests as mental illness when combined with other environmental stressors such as police discrimination or the death of a relative, especially in men.

Mohamed said he thinks Olango may have suffered a nervous breakdown during his encounter with police due to a combination of fear, previous traumas and grief from the death of his friend.

“To deal with the loss of a loved one or somebody who’s friends with you, to not have that trust with authority or police creates a lot of stress," Mohamed said.

The funeral of Olango's friend took place Wednesday, a day after Olango was killed.

Alfred Olango is pictured with his friend, Bereket, whose funeral was held the day after Olango's fatal shooting.
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Alfred Olango is pictured with his friend, Bereket, whose funeral was held the day after Olango's fatal shooting.

Mohamed said East African men with mental illness rarely seek professional help because they don't trust U.S. psychiatric institutions. Neither they nor their family members see mental health symptom such as hallucinations as medical problems. Some of them see them as having spiritual or supernatural causes.

As a result, they don't believe pharmaceuticals will help them.

Mohamed said police and mental health professionals in San Diego County need to work more closely with the East African community to develop culturally appropriate response strategies and services. His organization is attempting to create that bridge for now.

"People should not be criminalized for being mentally ill," he said.

Other immigrants who were fatally shot by police in San Diego County while experiencing episodes of psychosis or other mental illness include Afghanistan refugee Fridoon Rawshawn Nehad in 2015 and Burmese refugee Ja Ma Lo Day in 2014.