Muslim Community Leaders Address Mental Health at First of its Kind Conference

The often stigmatized topic of mental health brought together Muslims from all over Houston on Saturday for a unique event.

About 300 community leaders, including counselors, imams and mental health service providers and refugees, gathered for the Islamic 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 to low-income families in Houston, hosted the conference. The foundation’s chairman, philanthropist Nasruddin Rupani, announced that it will expand its service offering with the construction of a building that will include mental health services.

“Our emergency clinic will have a whole floor of mental health services,” Rupani said, “We hope 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 some sort of curse or punishment,” said Dr. Asim Shah, conference speaker and psychiatrist at Baylor College of Medicine. He said that some Muslims view seeking treatment as a form of weakness.

Shah explained that despite the fact that mental health is a major problem in any community, especially Muslims, this resistance is a major problem.

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 commit suicide.

“Sometimes you need more than prayers,” said University of Michigan psychiatry professor Dr. Farha Abbasi, one of the speakers at the conference and an international advocate for Muslim mental health.

Abbasi said it is vital that religious leaders validate – not critically – regarding mental health issues.

“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 that the Quran – the holy book of Islam – emphasizes mental and physical well-being and that seeking mental health care is actually supported by Islamic teachings, not in conflict with them.

She advocates a collaborative model of care so that mental health professionals can work with imams and other spiritual leaders to rely on each other to guide a patient through a spiritual or mental health crisis.

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

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

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

In her experience of treating Muslim women, she has so far been shocked to hear what they are dealing with at home.

“You see them happy, but if you sit down with her and try to open her, she starts to cry. They have a lot of abuse, emotional abuse and verbal abuse, their husband talks to them like ‘Who do you think you are?’”

Abakar said opening up to women is a big challenge, especially since there are also cultural barriers to consider. Being from Sudan, her experiences as a Muslim woman are different from those of women from Central and South Asia.

She said the key is to maintain absolute confidentiality.

The conference also addressed the mental health of refugees and immigrants, a topic Kadidja Diallo knows well as program director at Olive Branch Muslim Family Services.

Diallo said some of her clients are struggling to maintain their culture as they adjust to new standards in the US

“The lack of familiarity is a huge culture shock,” she said, especially as families struggle to cope with the fact that they have left their lives behind.

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

According to Pew Research, 58 percent of Muslims in the US are immigrants and come mainly 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.

About 25 Muslim-majority countries were represented among the conference attendees, according to event organizers.

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