University of Minnesota Alumni Association

Alumni Stories

Smashing Stigmas

Alumni couple specializes in providing therapy for immigrants and people of color.

Photo credit: Wolfskull Creative

By any measure, the state of mental health in America is worsening for people of all races and ethnicities—and a two-year pandemic has only exacerbated the challenges. But one married couple is helping an underserved community seek treatment and smash society’s stigmas associated with mental health.

Edwin Swaray (B.A. ’06) and Vivian Ballah-Swaray (B.A. ’05) are co-owners of VEEMAH Integrated Wellness and Consulting Services in Crystal, Minnesota, putting them among only an estimated 3 percent of Black-owned counseling services in the U.S. today. Although their facility welcomes all clients, VEEMAH specializes in providing mental health care services and addiction treatment for immigrants and people of color.

Edwin, who also became a licensed alcohol and drug counselor after graduation, provides chemical dependency treatment for his clients while Vivian, a licensed psychologist, helps children and adults who have experienced trauma. The duo draws on their shared experiences as West African refugees who met as teenagers in Monrovia, Liberia, and endured the turmoil of civil wars and multiple displacements in the 1990s.

“Prior to the civil war, I never imagined leaving Liberia,” says Edwin. “After the war, leaving was all I thought about. It was not a safe place to stay.” After marrying, they sought U.S. asylum in the Twin Cities, where Vivian’s aunt lived. Shortly after, the couple enrolled at the University of Minnesota.

“We wanted to challenge ourselves academically by attending one of the best-ranked universities in the country,” says Edwin, who majored in journalism while writing articles for The Minnesota Daily, the student newspaper. Vivian discovered her passion during an introductory course in psychology.

“That class sparked something in me,” says Vivian. “It helped me begin to understand my reaction to the war. How I reacted to loud noises, to thunder, to seeing a person in a military uniform . . . all of these were triggering to me.”

Inspired by the class, Vivian changed her major and began a healing journey to address her trauma and to educate her community about their shared experiences. In 2018, she opened VEEMAH (named by combining “Vivian” with Edwin’s middle name “Nyumah”). Two years later, Edwin decided to join the practice.

“After George Floyd was murdered, I finally said, ‘This is it. I’m going to partner with Vivian.’ It was the best decision we ever made,” Edwin says. “When there are practitioners of color like us, our clients come in knowing they can identify with us. They feel so at home.”

Many of their clients are immigrants from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Liberia.

“That shows there’s still a lot of stigma associated with seeking help in the immigrant community,” says Edwin. “These people are going through racial trauma issues or depression and anxiety because they’ve lost a job or they’ve lost loved ones, and many still wouldn’t seek help.”

Photo credit: Wolfskull Creative

Vivian understands the reluctance. “People who struggle with trauma have a way of learning how to protect themselves and to disassociate when the pain becomes too much. That’s what I think most of us as humans do,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons that we’re in this practice today. It’s the hope that if we help one person with mental health issues, then our work will not be in vain.”

Like many health practitioners, Edwin and Vivian themselves also struggle at times. Even today, they find it difficult to cope when the startling sounds of neighborhood firecrackers or fireworks erupt during the Fourth of July. For them, it brings back the din of gunshots and bomb explosions. But they both recognize that their past experiences have shaped their careers in satisfying ways.

As a boy, Edwin watched his mother battle alcohol dependency. In West African culture, addiction was considered a moral issue, not a disease. “I eventually reasoned that since I was unable to help my mother, I will spend the rest of my life helping those who struggle with substance use disorder—especially the people in my immediate community,” he says.

“It’s been challenging but also a very rewarding experience to see the impact we’ve made and continue to make in our community,” says Vivian. “The joy is the reward we get from the work we do.”

Colin Sokolowski is a Twin Cities writer.

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