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How U.S. Mosques are Dealing with Rise in Mental Health Issues

Posted: February 06, 2018

They meet in a conference room on the second floor of the Islamic Association of Raleigh, a therapist and a member of the mosque experiencing emotional distress.

Sitting around a table in the windowless room, they talk for an hour, during which the therapist draws up a list of referrals to outside experts who can offer specialized help for marital conflict, children's behavioral problems, depression, substance abuse or other issues.

In the United States, many Muslims are reluctant to seek out mental health professionals because of the stigma attached to mental illness or because they fear that a Western-trained therapist will not understand their culture or religion. Instead, they turn to imams and other community leaders, who often quietly refer them to mental health professionals. But leaders of the Raleigh mosque, which draws thousands of worshippers a week, realized that mental health issues needed to be dealt with in a more professional and organized way and that the requests were inundating its two religious leaders.

"Our imams get hundreds of requests every week," said Azleena Azhar, a trained Muslim chaplain and one of the leaders of the referral initiative. "It's been very overwhelming for them. People are slowly finding out that if they don't need to get advice from a religious scholar - they can come to the team and talk to someone there instead."

A year ago, a group of mental health experts who also are mosque members agreed to volunteer their services. Members can go online and pick from six mental health experts - including a family therapist, chaplain and a substance abuse counselor - for a free and confidential session. This new referral initiative started here in September and is part of a growing menu of social services nationwide aimed at addressing the needs of American Muslims, which have never been stronger.

Muslims in the U.S. are racially and ethnically diverse, with nearly 60 percent born abroad. As a minority - making up 1.1 percent of the U.S. population - they have suffered assaults and intimidation.  They have faced a rise of nationalist rhetoric, which views immigrants as "other," have contributed to feelings of being bullied, harassed and otherwise treated with suspicion.

"There's this collective feeling of being under siege," said Dr. Hamada Hamid Altalib, a psychiatrist and neurologist who is president of the Institute for Muslim Mental Health and chief editor of the Journal of Muslim Mental Health.

Yet, many Muslims are wary of talking with outsiders about domestic violence or behavioral issues, for fear that may cast a bad light on the faith generally, said Kameelah Mu'Min Rashad, founder and president of the Muslim Wellness Foundation in Philadelphia. "There's an ambivalence about sharing these challenges outside of the community because it reinforces the stereotype we're trying to counteract about who we are," he said.

Providing mental health services through the mosque may provide cover as well as permission to access care, said Heather Laird, a psychologist who directs the Center for Muslim Mental Health and Islamic Psychology at the University of Southern California. Laird is one of a growing number of Muslims working to empower adherents to take advantage of mental health services. Laird is working on a developing a 24-hour mental health hotline for Muslims living in Southern California and has been instrumental in several initiatives to extend culturally compatible mental health services to Muslims through education, treatment and referrals. 

"There's a lot of intergenerational trauma in our community - a lot of issues that come up that have gone unaddressed: depression, marital issues, suicide among youth, LGBT sexuality," she said. "Our community is suffering."

That kind of cultural sensitivity is critical because Muslims won't seek out mental health services if they fear that their religious identity might be threatened, said Shaykh Suhail Mulla, resident scholar at the Islamic Society of West Valley in Los Angeles and the Muslim chaplain at UCLA. For example, a woman wearing the hijab and seeking out psychotherapy may not want to be told "You just need to take off your hijab and assimilate and be like everybody else and then you'll be able to find a job," he said.

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