The first time I realized that the state of Muslim mental health in the United States is at a crisis level was when I wrote an article featuring tips on how to deal with stress and anxiety (http://www.soundvision.com/info/peace/stresstips.asp). I started receiving an extraordinarily high amount of feedback about it, and the article became one of the most popular ones on the Sound Vision website.
I began to wonder: why are so many people responding with such enthusiasm?
That was my doorway into the world of Muslim mental health. The first key was a Yale University study by Dr. Mona Amer in 2006 that noted that 50 percent of all Arab-Americans surveyed had clinical signs of depression.
The second key was the accounts of Muslim social service providers I was hearing from. In their encounters with clients, these experts found more cases of domestic violence in the Muslim community than in the past. I also discovered that there is an organization devoted to this called Muslim Mental Health, Inc which publishes a journal on this topic.
I gleaned more disturbing information during a visit to the U.K. a few years back, while attending a meeting at a think tank. There, some of the high-level participants and members of parliament revealed that 24 percent of Muslims in England cannot work because of mental health issues, as determined by their physicians. While the U.K. is not the U.S., as a country with a Muslim minority population, I felt the experience of Muslims in these two countries was similar enough to warrant comparison.
The latest cause of alarm was a study published last December in the American Journal of Public Health, http://www2.med.umich.edu/prmc/media/newsroom/details.cfm?ID=1415 which noted that about 25 percent of Arab adults in greater Detroit reported abuse after 9/11. The lead researcher of the study, Dr. Aasim Padela, also noted that Muslim Arabs reported higher rates of abuse than Christian Arabs. He added that those who reported abuse showed a higher probability of having psychological distress, lower levels of happiness and poorer perceptions of health status.
This issue becomes even more serious when we factor in the backdrop of America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the threat of terrorism to the United States. The response of the U.S. government to its Muslim community since the 9/11 terrorist attacks has been frightening, fraught with suspicion, surveillance and secrecy. More than 500,000 American Muslims have been interrogated by the FBI; mosques throughout the country has been checked for nuclear devices and tens of thousands have been detained or deported while many linger in prison sentenced with the secret evidence not shown to them. http://www.soundvision.com/info/islamophobia/usastatistics.asp
There are a number of cases in the U.S. in which Muslims who have mental health issues have responded violently to these external pressures. In one of these incidents in California, a man who was actually a former Muslim who had converted to Christianity, attacked a Jewish organization. In another case in Colorado, a Muslim who had been taking medication for mental illness went on a rampage at a mall.
Not all people who have mental health issues become violent. But some do. However, there hasn't been much discussion about why this is the case, and even less so when it involves Muslims. This indicates that there is an urgent need to pay attention to this.
Last year, Gallup's Center for Muslim Studies released its report "Muslim Americans: A National Portrait" describing itself as an in-depth report on the nation's most diverse religious community. It is the first-ever nationally representative study of a randomly selected sample of Americans issuing more than 300,000 interviews of U.S. households.
Although not focused on Muslim mental health, two particular findings were disturbing. First, that anger, stress, and worry, are more likely to be reported by some groups of Muslim Americans than by their racial counterparts in other faiths. In addition, Muslim Americans are the least likely religious group surveyed to be "thriving," especially when compared with Jewish Americans and Mormon Americans. At the same time, 56% of Muslim Americans say they are "struggling."
Second, that Muslim youth aged 18 to 28 are the least happy and the most angry compared to the youth of other faith groups in America. Twenty-six percent of young Muslims, compared with 14% each of young Protestants and Mormons, say they experienced anger."
This indicates not only that our adults are facing challenges like depression and anger, but these difficulties have already trickled down to our youth. This is why it is so important that all stakeholders in the Muslim community, parents, teachers, Imams and Muslim artists be aware of mental health issues, understand the phenomenon and make an effort to deal with it.
What we can do
1. The Muslim community in general and Muslim psychiatrists, psychologists and social service providers in particular, must urgently begin a mental health awareness campaign. Through online outreach via websites, articles and social networking, as well as speeches, workshops, lectures, multilingual brochures and other means, these professionals must educate the larger Muslim community about exactly what mental health is, why it is important and how it affects us.
2. Imams must present Khutbas on the topic of Muslim mental health, with a special focus on breaking down the taboo nature of this issue. Here is a guideline provided by a Muslim psychiatrists.
They should also give Khutbas on strengthening our relationship with Allah, particularly in times of stress and difficulty. Suitable topics to discuss include Sabr (patience) , Tawakkul (trust in God) and Shukr (thankfulness) , as well as sharing more and consuming less by practicing simple living. You may also use our article on how to deal with stress and anxiety as part of another Khutba.
3. Masjids must be the first institution Muslims can turn to in times of crisis. This is not just in the spiritual realm, but in that of mental health as well. In practical terms, this can mean hiring a social worker, counselor or therapist who can work with the Imam to identify and handle mental health crises in the community.
It can also mean breaking the mental health taboo in the Muslim community through programs like lectures and workshops on these issues. Special emphasis should be made on seeking professional help for problems like stress and depression, for instance. A number of Imams, community leaders, students, artists and parents have confided that they are suffering from depression but were not seeking any professional help.
4. Muslim schools (full time and weekend) must urgently hire professional counselors and establish mentorship programs for Muslim children, which will offer students a way to share their stress or concerns with qualified personnel who can help them. If this is not possible, then Muslim psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors in the community should step forward and volunteer their services, even if this is on a part-time basis.
In addition, teachers should be trained in a special seminar or workshop on recognizing the signs of stress, depression and other mental health challenges in their classrooms.
As well, schools should incorporate short lectures in their morning assemblies on the themes we have suggested above for Khutbas for Imams. Finally, administrators and teachers should work together to develop lesson plans on how to deal with anger, stress and other issues.