Muslim Americans in the Fight Against Mental Health Stigma
Guest Author: Sarika Antora, MA Psychology, MD Candidate at Drexel University College of Medicine
Although arguably one of the most plaguing issues of our time, mental health often takes a backseat in conversation if present at all in the Muslim world. At a time where Muslims are one of the most marginalized groups in the western world, frequent discrimination, assault, and stereotyping have given rise to increased negative mental health effects in the community.
As of recent, the Muslim community in the certain parts of the western world has seen a rise in community outreach programs, training seminars, and general advocacy for mental health. Youth everywhere have been more accepting of creating a culture that welcomes and encourages the concept of seeking professional help to better care for their mental health whether it be in the form of therapy or medication. However, despite the apparent push for change, there is still a void of general acceptance and understanding in the community. Despite changes in thought and awareness, Muslims are not readily entering professional spaces for mental health distress.
A complex health care system, lack of diversity amongst trained professionals, and community stigma are some of the major barriers Muslims face when trying to seek care. When afflicted with mental health issues, it can be taxing doing the smallest things and with the added pressure of navigating complex and problematic healthcare systems it can quickly become impossible to find healthcare professionals that fit your needs. While a dysfunctional healthcare system is not unique to any one area, mental health seems to be the most heavily afflicted by issues like coverage, provider availability, and access to additional resources.
As members of a widely recognized and marginalized minority group, it’s natural for Muslims to want to seek out professionals who can assess problems and tailor treatment plans in harmony with their religious, cultural, and sociopolitical needs. Growing up or living in a society that consistently pits parts of your identity against each other inevitably paints a picture that parts of you are incompatible. This in turn creates internal conflict and manifests in other forms of mental distress. For example, research shows that people who highly self identify as American and highly self identify as Muslim struggle the most with identity conflict, low self-esteem, and self-stigma. This is why it’s particularly important to find providers who can tackle these questions without further adding to a narrative that categorizes you in the out-group.
Due to the lack of adequate diversity in the professional community, Muslims often find themselves reluctant to enter these spaces and prefer to turn to what’s familiar. The fact is counsel and forms of talk therapy have always existed in the Islamic world. Traditionally, individuals have relied on religious leaders and community elders to discuss social conflict and aspects of internal conflict. It is not uncommon for the local Imam or a Qur’an teacher at the mosque to address issues like identity, relationship conflict, and depression. While it is not necessarily wrong to seek comfort and counsel from individuals you trust, it can be dangerous to avoid seeking professional help. Professionals that are licensed to treat psychiatric and psychological illnesses are simply better equipped to tackle and solve the issues at hand.
Finding a provider that understands your background can be difficult and ICNA Relief is working hard to bridge this gap by having counselors who are cognizant of ethnic and Islamic values.
Yet still, one of the biggest reasons professional help is rarely sought out for mental health needs in the Muslim community is the stigma associated with it. In an effort to mitigate the severity of a problem that seems to solely be residing “in your head”, family members and friends will often suggest that strengthening faith would solve the issue at hand, pointing to prayer and other forms of worship. Relying on the concept of weak faith as a scapegoat is appealing because it immediately makes the problem rectifiable and preventable. The drawback with reaffirming the narrative that these ailments can’t afflict us because we maintain strong faith is that it reinforces a victim blaming narrative.
This is particularly problematic in the context of Muslims who are battling mental health issues in conjunction with other situations that are widely considered taboo in traditional Islamic settings. Just like mental health itself, many of these issues are treated as incompatible with strong faith. In situations like this, individuals may find it particularly exhausting to find a cohesive balance in their life if they’re being given conflicting and divisive paths to a solution. Desperate for relief and in effort to do justice to counsel given by their community elders, individuals may try to remedy their situations via worship but often find it to be futile. Subsequently, this can then lead to dialogue of self-blame and can intensify maladaptive behaviors.
While spiritual growth and support is not harmful in times of distress, more often than not psychological distress is not exclusively a product of weakened faith and therefore cannot solely be treated with prayer. Treatment in the form professional therapy or medication is often regarded as extreme and unnecessary in cultural contexts. However, it is a necessary, effective, and healthy plan of action. Perhaps the only way forward is one that broadens our discussions of uncomfortable topics and includes them in the context of faith. Increasing the desire to understand mental health illnesses and normalizing discussions around it will only help illustrate the fact that the willingness to seek professional help will, in actuality, never be incompatible with faith.