A Culture of Silence: Mental Health in the Muslim Community

Writer: Mikada Green

Editor: Adelyne Koe

Graphic Designer: Betty Zeng

Illustrator: Betty Zeng


Discussing mental health in the Muslim community is a tricky topic with many negative connotations ingrained in the religion and culture. Specifically, there is a culture of silence surrounding mental illness as well as internal and external stigma. The religion of Islam approaches health from a holistic perspective, meaning that there are connections to the welfare of the mind, body, and spirit. In Arabic, these three connections are the ‘aql, jism, and ruh.’ The Qur’an heavily focuses on one’s relationship with spiritual health rather than bodily health. Some in the Muslim community view illness as a means to cleanse one’s sins, a spiritual trial given by Allah, or the Islamic God. It is important to note that, like many religions in the world, the Muslim community’s levels of religiousness and traditionality are heterogeneous; there are many different ways to worship, and the opinions on mental health may vary depending on various factors.


For many who practice Islam, there is a connection between supernatural causes and mental illness. However, holding supernatural forces responsible for mental illness is not a trait only found in Islam. Paganism, Wicca, Haitian Voodoo, African traditionalism, and even Christianity are just a few examples of belief systems that discuss devil possession. Sometimes, it is seen as the root cause of mental illness. Rather than a chemical imbalance, Muslim people may view mental illness as symptoms related to jinn possession, a powerful spirit. While jinn possession may be a belief many hold, there is no evidence within the Qur’an to connect jinn possession to mental illness. It makes sense that some Muslim individuals may jump to this conclusion due to the emphasis on spiritual health in the Qur’an. Unfortunately, when those experiencing mental health issues hear these claims that their symptoms are because of weakness or punishment by God, it drives them even farther from searching for the help they need.


The stigma surrounding mental health may lead individuals towards label avoidance. Label avoidance is when a person actively avoids mental health assistance to avoid what they perceive as “negative labels.” This problem grows deeper when considering the impact of self-stigma on one’s health. With self-stigma, the outward judgment from peers is internalized, and they direct these negative opinions toward themselves. The idea that Allah causes all illnesses creates an ideology in many where mental illnesses are perceived as a punishment for sins. There are a few other common misconceptions surrounding mental health in the Muslim community: mental health issues are embarrassing for the family, related to not being religious enough, a test from God that should not be dealt with professionally, and non-Muslim mental health practitioners will force their personal beliefs onto the individual seeking help. These misconceptions also often influence marriage prospects, reinforcing the idea that those who disclose their mental health issues are seen as less desirable marriage candidates. Being ostracized or ridiculed by peers is a valid fear, considering mental health issues' stigmas.


Within the Muslim community, “cultural syndromes” prevent people from seeking help for mental health issues or make receiving treatment more difficult. The first syndrome is tightness. Tightness is the existence of confining standards that disapprove of straying from what is considered the norm. Cultural complexity is associated with social, religious, educational, and political ideals. Honor is another aspect of the Muslim culture that holds significant weight in many families. Defending the honor of one’s family could potentially be more pressing in the minds of Muslim people struggling with mental health issues. The idea of dishonoring the family by publicly expressing mental health complications is a real problem. The final syndrome relevant to the discussion is collectivism. When collectivism is considered an essential aspect of the family unit, one’s personal goals become second to the purposes of the family or tribe. Collectivism is seen less in Western cultures, as people in these regions tend to place greater importance on individual goals.


These cultural syndromes and misconceptions within the traditional Muslim unit hinder the ability to effectively address mental health among the Muslim community. For that reason, researchers have often found that the methods of psychotherapy that have shown promise in the West may not be productive in other regions. In turn, cultural centers that offer mental health services for the Muslim community have recently been established in the United States. These cultural centers aim to provide services that address the specific socio-cultural circumstances of Muslim Americans, even acknowledging different ethnic backgrounds. Unfortunately, fear of language barriers, lack of familiarity with therapy, uncertainty towards modern psychiatry, a deficit of therapists familiar with the culture, and social stigma have made many hesitant to utilize these resources.


The key to fixing this problem is to continue to educate and listen. Effective strategies such as a more structured approach to the client demographic, education about the benefits of therapy, easy access, centers ingrained in the client’s community, outreach targeted specifically to Muslim people, and the creation of a system of support by family and the outside community have slowly helped create a comfortable environment for Muslim people seeking counseling. However, there are many layers to the stigma surrounding mental health within the Muslim community. Revising current psychiatric assessment tools and organizing multicultural centers for mental health are only the first steps. By addressing the fundamental causes for refusing help, we can ensure these services are being utilized when necessary.


 

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