Mental Health Stigma in the Muslim Community
Mental health in the Muslim community has recently become an even more pressing issue. As I explained in a previous article, Islamophobic attitudes, previously dormant in the minds of many, have become active—Islamophobic voices have become louder. Discrimination, in its overt and subtle forms, has a negative impact on the mental health of Muslim-Americans. This claim has been backed by research. For example, a study by the Boston University School of Medicine found that the daily harassment that some Muslims face “can increase their risk of common mental disorders,” such as anxiety and depression.
Islamophobia is just one part of the mental health discussion in the Muslim community. While outer societal forces, such as Islamophobia, can affect Muslim-Americans’ mental health, stigma—a force within the Muslim community—also greatly impacts mental health. The American Muslim Health Professionals have recognized mental health literacy as the number one public health concern within the Muslim-American community, and that stigma is a big reason behind it. Stigma prevents many Muslim-Americans from discussing their mental health issues with others, and even accessing mental health resources. In some cases, stigma may potentially make mental health issues worse, or even prevent individuals from realizing their issues to begin with.
Stigma within the Muslim-American community is rooted in culture and religion, just like many other forms of stigma. As explained in journal article “Mental Health Stigma in the Muslim Community,” some Muslims have associated mental illness with punishment or evil. Some feel that God, Allah, is in control of everything, including illnesses. Therefore, problems with mental health are perceived as a disconnection or punishment from God. Furthermore, some Muslims may feel that mental illness is actually the result of being possessed by evil spirits, or jinns. Punishment from God or possession by jinns isn’t necessarily something that Muslims want to disclose to family or community members. It’s shameful to talk about and certainly shameful to seek help for.
Not all Muslims associate mental illness with possession by jinns or disconnection with God. Some Muslims have a more positive view of mental health treatment. However, despite this, social stigma remains closely tied to mental illness, and a negative view of mental health issues remains. Research has found that some feel hesitant to discuss their mental health issues, as they’re concerned for their family’s social standing. For instance, a study on Muslim families found that 75% of them felt stigmatized by others because they had a relative with a mental illness. Meanwhile, close to 40% of these families said they would not marry into a family that had a relative with mental illness. Another study has found that some Muslim-Americans have internalized negative views of mental illness and self-stigmatize—as a result, they report more self-shame when it comes to utilizing mental health services.
Stigma within the Muslim community prevents many from accepting and seeking help for their mental health issues. But, a number of organizations have been working to foster an environment where it’s easier for Muslims to talk about mental health. MentalHealth4Muslims, founded by Muslims Dr. Nafisa Sekandari and Sr. Hosai Mojaddidi, provides an open forum for Muslims to talk about their own struggles with mental health and educate others on how to address mental health issues.
A recent post on MentalHealth4Muslims entitled “Are You Making These Mistakes When Treating Mental Illness” was written by a Muslim with bipolar disorder. In the post, the author emphasizes to readers that having a mental illness isn’t the individual’s fault; so, there’s no reason to self-stigmatize. The author also urges readers to seek professional help from mental health professionals.
One of the major takeaways from the post is that the author makes a number of references to having trust in God, Allah, when dealing with mental illness. Incorporating faith and spirituality into the discussion makes it easier for many Muslims to accept mental illness. In fact, a study “Factors Affecting Attitudes Toward Seeking and Using Formal Mental Health and Psychological Services Among Arab Muslim Populations” showed that Muslims would feel more comfortable discussing with a religious leader. With that said, organizations such as the Muslim Wellness Foundation and The Institute of Muslim Mental Health offer mental health courses for religious leaders, such as Imams and Islamic chaplains, so that they are better able to understand mental illness, provide counseling, and connect individuals to the appropriate health professionals.
While much of my discussion has centered around stigma within the Muslim community, research by Youssef and Deane (2006) has also shown that Muslims don’t feel comfortable sharing their mental health issues with outsiders. In order to better understand mental health within the Muslim community, it is extremely important for non-Muslims to check out websites like MentalHealth4Muslims. This way, non-Muslim health providers will be more culturally competent on issues unique to Muslims, and may be better able to treat Muslim patients. In turn, Muslims have feel more comfortable discussing their issues with non-Muslim mental health professionals, without the incredible burden that stigma provides.