In our efforts to continue to advocate for disenfranchised and stigmatized groups we would like to take this article to touch on mental health within the Muslim community. The Capital Region has a relatively large Muslim population and it is important that mental health professionals and providers have an idea of what sort of resources exist for Muslims living in the area. It’s also important to break stigma as Muslims are a group who are often ignored or forgotten during discussions of mental health.

First, I want to break some misconceptions. The first thing I think is important to get out of the way is the incredibly common misconception that Muslims only live in the Middle East; this is unequivocally false. Muslims call many places around the globe their home including the United States, in fact the most recent estimates state that about 1.1% of the US population is Muslim (which calculates to about 3.45 million people). Islam is the fastest growing religion in America, and it is estimated that by 2050 Islam will surpass Judaism as the second most common faith in the United States. While 91% of the of the world’s Muslim population does reside in the Middle East and North Africa, other territories including Central Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia-Oceania, and Europe are also home to large Islamic communities.

Another very common misconception is that there is only one way to practice Islam (and unfortunately many Americans believe that it is the extremists who represent the entire Muslim community). While there are core beliefs that exist in Islam, the practice of those beliefs are just as diverse as any other religion. Just as there are various interpretations of other religious texts, so too are there for Islam.

Finally, when it comes to mental illness there are a couple of misconceptions and myths that exist for Muslims both in and outside of the community. One subtle, and pretty insidious idea, is that Muslims do not experience mental health concerns. You can see this very clearly when an act of terror committed by someone practicing Islam is blamed on their religion or dogma, while for other acts of terror, committed by other demographics; it is blamed on the person’s mental state. This is a clear microaggression that exacerbates the idea that Muslims do not experience mental illness. Another culture norm that tends to exist that only perpetuates this misconception is that mental health is often not discussed in Muslim households. This is not to say that this is true for every household, but it is a common taboo to discuss mental health as it is often seen as shameful, and embarrassment, a weakness on the part of the believer and their faith, or just not fully understood.

Mental illness within the Muslim community is often not well understood, and individuals experiencing symptoms of mental illness can often feel lonely and misunderstood. The following are statistics related to mental illness in the American Muslim community:

  • Data on community prevalence of psychiatric disorders among Muslim Americans is scarce. There is, however, some data available on prevalence among clinical samples seeking treatment.
  • Existing data show high rates of adjustment disorder experienced by Muslim Americans seeking mental health treatment, which may be suggestive of the challenges of acculturation and adjustment, as well as discrimination and marginalization in society.
  • Nearly one-third of Muslim Americans perceived discrimination in health care settings; being excluded or ignored was the most frequently conveyed type of discrimination.
  • Religious discrimination against Muslims is associated with depression, anxiety, subclinical paranoia, and alcohol use.
  • Women experience more fear for their safety than Muslim men, and suffer emotional trauma at higher rates than male counterparts.
  • Women in Muslim immigrant populations may have difficulty leaving abusive relationships due to a sense of duty and fear of social ostracization, as well as concerns over financial independence and immigration status; Muslim immigrant women were also more afraid to call the police for domestic violence over fear of community reaction, wanting to protect their partners and children.
  • There has been a gradual decline in Muslim men’s mental health over the years; there have been increased reports of both depression and suicide in Muslim men.
  • Symptoms of depression may appear different in Muslim men than what is traditionally thought of as depressive symptoms; rather than complaining of feeling low, Muslim men commonly complain of fatigue, irritability, sleep problems or loss of interest in work and hobbies. They’re also more likely to experience symptoms such as anger, aggression, reckless behavior and substance abuse
  • Recent travel and immigration restrictions directed primarily at Muslim countries by the U.S. government have led to traumatizing experiences for many Muslim Americans. In particular, the harsh handling and long detainments by U.S. Customs and Border Protection can be re-traumatizing to those already vulnerable.
  • Clinicians and mental health providers have a crucial role in addressing societally connected mental health challenges arising from Islamophobia; involvement in community interventions can be utilized by providers to counter Islamophobia and encourage Muslim Americans to seek professional mental health care.
  • Imams (Muslim faith leaders) have an integral role in community mental health; Muslim Americans may be more willing to seek help from religious leaders than formal mental health services.
  • Expressing emotional distress in somatic terms often occurs in Muslim cultures, particularly from the Middle East and North Africa (example, frequent stomach aches and headaches).

The following are some resources to learn more about Muslim mental health or get involved in volunteer efforts:

By Marion White, LMHC