Muslim community leaders tackle mental health at first-of-its-kind conference

The oft-stigmatized topic of mental health brought together Muslims from across Houston on Saturday for a one-of-a-kind event.

About 300 community leaders, including counselors, imams and mental health and refugee service providers, gathered for the Muslim Mental Health Conference for Sugar Land Community Leaders to address addiction, mental health young people and the effects of COVID-19.

The Ibn Sina Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides health care services to low-income families in Houston, organized the conference. The foundation’s chairman, philanthropist Nasruddin Rupani, has announced that it will expand its range of services with the construction of a building that will include mental health support.

“Our help clinic will have a whole floor of mental health services,” Rupani said, “We hope to provide a completely free service to people who cannot afford it.”

Access to mental health care was a central focus of the conference, particularly the fact that asking for help can be taboo and prevent people from getting the support they need.

“Some Muslims with mental illness may also think that mental illness is a kind of curse or punishment,” said Dr. Asim Shah, a lecturer and psychiatrist at Baylor College of Medicine. He said some Muslims perceive seeking treatment as a form of weakness.

Shah explained that this resistance is despite the fact that mental health is a major issue in all communities, especially Muslims.

An academic study published by JAMA Psychiatry in 2021 found that Muslims in the United States are twice as likely as other religious groups to attempt suicide.

“Sometimes you need more than prayers,” said Dr. Farha Abbasi, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan, one of the speakers and an international advocate for Muslim mental health.

Abbasi said it was vital for religious leaders to validate — not criticize — mental health issues.

“Mental health is not about making judgments. It is not about sin, neither hell nor paradise. It’s about being there for your fellow human beings,” Abbasi said.

Abbasi said the Quran – Islam’s holy book – emphasizes mental and physical well-being and that seeking mental health care is in fact supported by Muslim teachings, not at odds with them. them.

She advocates a collaborative model of care so that mental health professionals can partner with imams and other spiritual leaders to lean on each other to guide a patient through a spiritual or mental health crisis. .

Organizers said around 30 imams and other mosque leaders attended the conference.

Amira Abakar attended the conference on Saturday and is studying for her doctorate. so she can run her own mental health practice to support Muslim women.

“If you make women stronger, all children will be raised in a society that will also be stronger,” Abakar said.

So far in her experience of dealing with Muslim women, she has been shocked to hear what they are dealing with inside the house.

“You see them happy, but when you sit down with her and try to let her open up, she starts crying. They go through a lot of abuse, emotional abuse and verbal abuse, their spouse speaking harshly, like “Who do you think you are?”

Abakar said getting women to open up is a big challenge, especially because there are also cultural barriers to consider. Being from Sudan, her experiences as a Muslim woman are different from those of Central and South Asian women.

She said the key is to maintain absolute confidentiality.

The conference also touched on refugee and immigrant mental health, a topic Kadidja Diallo knows intimately as Program Director at Olive Branch Muslim Family Services.

Diallo said some of his clients struggled to maintain their culture while adjusting to new norms in the United States.

“The lack of familiarity is a huge culture shock,” she said, especially when families try to come to terms with the fact that they’ve left their whole lives behind.

“It’s definitely a lot of stress and anxiety. And often things go undiagnosed because you just sweep them under the rug,” she said.

According to Pew Research, 58% of Muslims in the United States are immigrants and come primarily from countries in South and Central Asia and North Africa, particularly Pakistan, India, Iran and Afghanistan. Harris County has the second highest number of Pakistani immigrants in the country.

Some 25 Muslim-majority countries were represented among conference attendees, according to event organizers.

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