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

The often-stigmatized subject of mental health brought together Muslims from across Houston for a first-of-its-kind event Saturday.

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

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

“Our aid clinic will have a whole floor of mental health services,” Rupani said, “We are hoping that we provide a service completely free to people who can’t afford it.”

Access to mental health care was a focal point of the conference, especially how seeking 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 sort of a curse or punishment,” said Dr. Asim Shah, a conference speaker and psychiatrist with Baylor College of Medicine. He said some Muslims perceive seeking treatment as a form of weakness.

Shah explained that this resistance is despite mental health being a major problem across every community, 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 University of Michigan psychiatry professor Dr. Farha Abbasi, one of the conference speakers and an international advocate for Muslim mental health.

Abbasi said it’s vital that religious leaders should be validating —- not critical — regarding mental health struggles.

“Mental health is not about being judgmental. It’s not about sin, or hell or heaven. It’s about being there for your fellow human beings,” Abbasi said.

Abbasi said the Quran — the holy book of Islam — emphasizes mental and physical wellness and that seeking mental health care is actually supported by Muslim teachings, not at odds with it.

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

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

Amira Abakar attended the conference Saturday and is studying to get her Ph.D. so she can run her own mental health practice to support Muslim women.

“If you make women stronger, all the kids will be raised in a society that will be stronger, too,” Abakar said.

So far in her experience treating Muslim women, she’s been shocked to hear what they’re dealing with inside the home.

“You see them happy, but when you sit with her and try to let her open up, she would start crying. They have a lot of abuse, emotional abuse and verbal abuse, their spouse talking down to them, like ‘Who do you think you are?’”

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

She said the key is to maintain absolute confidentiality.

The conference also addressed mental health among refugees and immigrants, a subject that Kadidja Diallo knows intimately as program director at Olive Branch Muslim Family Services.

Diallo said some of her clients struggle with maintaining their culture while adjusting to new norms in the U.S.

“The lack of familiarity is a huge culture shock,” she said, especially while families are trying to deal with the fact that they left their whole lives behind.

“It’s a lot of stress and anxiety over that for sure. And a lot of times things go undiagnosed because you’re just kind of sweeping it under the rug,” she said.

According to Pew Research, 58 percent of Muslims in the U.S. are immigrants and mostly come from countries in South and Central Asia and North Africa, especially 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 the conference attendees, according to event organizers.

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