Mental health in the North American Muslim Community

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“I feel pulled back because of my background,” Haneen said of her struggle with depression and anxiety. “There’s a lot of belief that if God puts you through tribulation, it’s to test your patience.”

Imam Yasin Dwyer, a chaplain at Queen’s University, said there are many teachings of Islam about mental health and self-care. He said the barriers Muslim youth face when seeking help include a lack of understanding of mental health and varying beliefs on what it means to seek help for mental issues.

“We have to grow, we have to learn,” he said. “I think that our tradition can contribute a lot to understanding mental illness.”

Berak Hussain, the international student counsellor at Carleton University, also stressed a lack of understanding in the Muslim community.

“If it’s an illness like diabetes … you take medication for those and that’s okay,” she said. “But if it’s a mental health illness … you don’t go get the proper help.”

Hussain said another issue is that religious leaders are frontline workers, and most have little to no training on how to deal with a mental health crisis, even though the issues they face are very similar to the ones she deals with.

“They use different strategies as religious leaders, of course, but it’s essentially the same concept,” Hussain said. “They just don’t have the training we do as counsellors.”

Radiyah Chowdhury, a recent Carleton graduate, said though the stigma against mental health issues in her community affected how she dealt with her mental health, her faith had a positive effect.

“No soul is given a burden they are unable to bear,” Chowdhury said, citing a saying that served as a reminder of hope. “Depression does not detract from your faith.”

  1. Khan, who grew up in a more culturally Muslim household, said praying helped him during his depression, but he also became stressed about his religion.

“The attitude in the mosque was that if you’re being a good Muslim, you shouldn’t have all these mental health issues,” he said. “Just pray and it’ll go away. But it doesn’t.”

Haneen said her anxiety also stems from the current climate surrounding Islam.

“I’ve been attacked several times or confronted for being Muslim,” she said.

Amanee Elchehimi, vice-chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s Youth Council, said Islamophobia also affects counselling services.

“You’re going into a room with somebody who doesn’t generally understand,” she said. “Effective counsellors can try and can really quickly pick up on it … but the majority can’t.”

According to Chelby Daigle, coordinator of the website Muslim Link, a counsellor who is ignorant of their patients’ beliefs is detrimental to the person’s mental health.

“If the mainstream services are Islamophobic, or pathologize Muslim families … the person treating them is mistaking their issues with their religion,” she said. “It’s hard to talk about because Islamophobia’s still not entirely recognized as a form of prejudice.”

The lack of services is also an issue of funding, Daigle added. “The recent death of Abdirahman Abdi has raised a lot of questions within Ottawa’s Muslim communities,” she said. “I hope one question that starts getting asked is, where is the funding from the province for the services to help the other members in our community?”

Mental health advocate Ayan Yusuf, who spoke to PostMedia about a lack of mental health training for police following Abdi’s death, said the stigma in her community surrounding mental health treatment made her wary of seeking help.

“When somebody has a mental health issue, it’s not talked about,” she said. “I felt an enormous amount of guilt and burden to my family.”

Yusuf was later diagnosed with schizophrenia, and is now an advocate for mental health awareness in her community.

In the past few years, many programs and organizations have started to raise awareness about mental health issues in the Muslim community, like the Serenity Islamic Mental Health Awareness Initiative in Ottawa.

One such project is a collaboration between the Carleton Student Alliance for Mental Health (SAMH) and the Carleton Muslim Students’ Assocation (MSA). This year, they are planning a series of events for the Carleton Muslim community.

Organizer and SAMH executive Sabreen El Awad said the first event will address mental health and counselling broadly, while the later discussions will be more specific. 

Ahmed Hassan, MSA president, will be speaking about his own experience at the first event.

“We’re hoping that that will kind of get the ball rolling and get other people to discuss their own experiences with mental health and counselling,” he said.

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