September is Suicide Awareness Month and these days, it seems mental health awareness is around every corner. Maybe it’s just my algorithm, but personally I can’t get very far on social media without seeing an infographic that lists all the signs that I’m depressed — something most depressed people already know, but hey, I’m not complaining. There was a time where no one talked about any of these things. Except, I am complaining, because within our community, it still seems so difficult to discuss these topics.
The most difficult topic of all? Suicide. More so than any other aspect of mental health, suicide scares us and confronts us with our own secret desires to give up at times. Even if you don’t experience suicidal ideation, most people have at least jokingly said, “Oh my god, I’m going to kill myself!!” when something embarrassing happens. So why do we shun the topic when it actually matters most?
Enter amelia noor-oshiro, MPH. amelia identifies as a brown Muslim woman, suicide survivor and researcher, educator, and activist. amelia strongly believes that healing is possible, and she advocates for promoting mental health and healing in underrepresented communities. For the past six years, amelia has been working on the ground in this field with a focus on how to understand and prevent suicide in racial minority early adults ages 18-24 years old, using grassroots approaches grounded in social justice principles. amelia seeks to understand the risk and resiliency factors of suicide among early adult second-generation South Asian Muslim Americans. She thinks that the insights from studying this group will help uncover ideas for suicide prevention that can benefit many different racial, ethnic, immigrant communities. amelia is currently conducting this study for her PhD at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, MD. Let’s also not forget to mention she is the first Muslim-American to be selected for NIH funding for Muslim mental health research.
A phone interview between amelia and myself that I had planned to take about thirty minutes ended up turning into a two hour conversation. Being part of a Pakistani family with quite a few unchecked mental health issues ourselves, I was excited to speak with her, but nothing could’ve prepared me for what it would feel like to learn that someone out there is doing research that could change things for so many other people out there. We covered so much, and yet the scope of her work extends so much further than one can capture in a single conversation — even a lengthy one like ours.
Elizabeth Ann Aziz: How did you get into this field in the first place?
amelia noor-oshiro: I really felt a strong calling to work within the Muslim community. As I entered my Master’s program in New York at the Columbia Mailman School Public Health, I started off as a maternal health major. When I started my program in the fall of 2015, and at the time, [Trump] wasn’t yet president, we thought it was a joke that he would become president. However, I started to learn about how white supremacy works and how disparities work through my coursework in social determinants of health.
I started connecting the dots and realizing my mental health was personally suffering. I was a visible Muslim, wearing hijab, and I have a phenotype that can be easily misconstrued as Arab. So, you know, when it came to how my life was working out on the ground in the United States, it became clear to me that I’m probably not the only one suffering from mental health issues, and probably not the only one who doesn’t want Trump to become president and thinks that their worst nightmare is coming to life.
We didn’t have a really centralized place to go to and learn about ourselves or, or learn like what we could do to prevent mental health symptoms of depression or anxiety, and we were scrambling because there wasn’t enough research on our experiences. There were a lot of missing elements in terms of culturally appropriate understanding of mental health, especially in terms of like critical race theory and intersectionality theory as it pertains to Muslim mental health. So even though I started off as a maternal health major, what I did was after that first semester in my MPH program, I connected with all the administrators, and I told them I’m changing my major, changing my certificate, I’m changing my advisor, I’m changing my thesis. I’m changing everything.
In 2016, I started building up the pieces to conduct my own original research study. I wanted to see if there was any connections between being visibly Muslim, experiencing Islamophobic discrimination, and having symptoms of clinical depression anxiety studies. To my surprise, 59% of my sample of 340 people met the clinical cutoff for a diagnosis of major depressive disorder. I knew I had to do something and I couldn’t stop there. So, despite the fact that I never intended to, I applied to do a PhD and continue this critical research for us as a Muslim American community.
amelia noor-oshiro, MPH
Elizabeth Ann Aziz: What’s something that you want people to know about you, personally?
amelia noor-oshiro: Personally, the most important thing I want people to know about me is that I represent hope as a survivor, and I firmly believe that kindness is suicide prevention. As a professional, probably the most important thing to know about me is that I wear many hats, and I often wear them simultaneously. For example, I am both amelia and “The Muslim Suicide Researcher” at once, in many contexts. Traditionally, research has been conducted on people by other people who are not from that particular group…My entire presence in the community is the complete antithesis to that!
I’m conducting research not just for the community. I’m conducting it with the community, not just for them, but also for me, and other survivors like me, for the future of my children and generations after me. So, you know, if we’re going to talk about how my research is different, and how what I do is different, then the number one answer is that everything I do is informed from a lived experience perspective and social justice framework. I call myself a “scholar-activist,” and part of the activist work is essentially creating a safe space for the community to hold conversations about this topic in a critical manner.
Elizabeth Ann Aziz: I guess my next question would be, how do we create those safe spaces, or do you have any examples of one?
amelia noor-oshiro: No, I did not, and I would love to know if there are any that exist for the purpose of discussing suicide. It is really important to highlight the fact that we don’t have the ingredients to recognize what a safe space looks like within the broader American Muslim community, as a collective effort across all masajid, third spaces, and community orgs. Especially among young people who are seeking a space to belong, I want to investigate exactly what it is that we construct as a safe space. So when it comes to doing my research, something unique about it is that it is a framework called “community-based participatory research” or CBPR. Which means I have to get to the grassroots level, and get buy-in from members and leaders of our community on the ground. But one of my major challenges is: how do I do this work, how do I get people invested in the work, if we can’t even talk about the work to begin with, because there is no established groundwork on what safe spaces look like. Who are the major public figures in the Muslim community that are talking about this right now? I have yet to meet them and I am eager to work with them to figure this out together.
Elizabeth Ann Aziz: How come Western societies can embrace the concept of mental health, yet we can’t?
amelia noor-oshiro: We have our own barriers in the Muslim community. Let me give you an example just from my own lived experience perspective as a survivor and a researcher trying to do this work in a community-engaged way. I can only go so far. I only have so much power and clout within the Muslim community itself. My credibility is already under question because of who I am and what I stand for. Why am I so out about being a survivor? Why am I shattering social norms by being public with my own mental health struggles as a mental health researcher? What I embody is a conversation that’s ahead of its time in our community, way down the line, that most people are not ready to have. I struggle with that because it ironically makes me lose credibility among professional circles where I am expected to perform as if I am a neurotypical, able-bodied person. It’s really dehumanizing, honestly. So then I’m having to face the fact that not only is the topic a sensitive topic, and so people are generally wary of it, but then there’s me being a trailblazer as an open survivor, and then let’s not mention the structural barriers, like patriarchal gatekeeping, issues of power, control, spiritual trauma, and even misogynistic microaggressions that prevent me from gaining the access to the people I need, but also the level of acceptance that I need to have to promote this work for the benefit of the community. I think most people forget that this is not my work, it is our work.
Suicide prevention is a collective effort and a community responsibility, it’s not just something I am doing as a career or vocation. Being The Muslim Suicide Researcher means I am here to consult as a community resource when needed, but the work of suicide prevention must be an active daily investment and commitment from every person in the community, including you!
I’ve actually had conversations with leaders in the Muslim community who have straight up told me that they’re not going to support me publicly because of what I stand for. Why? I’m a human rights activist, and I believe in human rights — and, unfortunately, not everyone in the Muslim community is on board with that, if you catch my drift. Suicide itself is a human rights issue, right, so all of my work is essentially a convergence of all these oppressions that people face that make them want to end their life. And what are we facing right now? We’ve got a clash of generations, a clash of acculturation and enculturation, a clash of ideology, traditional and modern, and whatever else you want to call it. We’re dealing with a lot of social norms that need to be unpacked and analyzed at a very granular level, and yet it’s not happening. Because the people who need to have the mic, are not getting the mic. So in order to get to suicide prevention, how about amplifying voices like mine to reach people who share similar struggles and are seeking answers?
Elizabeth Ann Aziz: What does the phrase “spiritual abuse” mean to you, and what does it entail?
amelia noor-oshiro: Spiritual abuse is something that I would define as a violation of your personal and individual boundaries, and also community violations and collective traumas as they relate to the power dynamics of spiritual spaces and religious figures. Even the perception of those boundaries being violated is important to consider. But also just feeling isolated. Feeling alone because you think no one understands you in the Muslim community; everyone will judge you for being a bad Muslim. So I think, when we talk to people like the imaam, shuyukh, or any kind of people who are public figures or scholarly figures, they represent a sort of institutional level of spirituality, they represent the face of of our Muslim community.
And I think that that’s very delicate and important to address because any actions that this person then takes toward any member of a congregant of the community should be fully informed of what that power dynamic means. People who hold institutional power in the Muslim community have the responsibility of fostering a safe environment for spirituality to flourish and the sanctity of having a firm spiritual connection, so these people should be modeling what a secure attachment to Islam looks like. They should be modeling these things because that is who people look to because they are those individuals that have a platform. And when that kind of dynamic, that power dynamic is something that is not positive for congregants, it can disrupt the spiritual connection.
Something that my former therapist told me is that all oppression is traumatic, and all trauma is oppressive. If you have a dynamic in the Muslim community where people do not have secure attachment to spiritual figures or models, models that should be behaving in appropriate ways that have been prescribed to us, then it really disrupts the spiritual connections we have to God. It brings complete distrust in the community and traumatizes people. Then you have to work on damage control, but really at that point many people are faced with the question of “Am I Muslim because I believe in Allah and I follow this map or am I Muslim because everyone around me is?”
I think the answer must consider that our faith is two-pronged — it’s both individual and collective. It’s built in for us to pray alone, and also we are rewarded to pray in congregation. We are encouraged, we partner up in prayer, we’re always encouraged to have this kind of very collectivist outlook on our faith. You should pray if you have mental health problems, but guess what the other part of that formula is? You need community support. But if the community itself is rejecting you, because you’re gay, or because you had premarital sex, or you drink, how are you to expect someone to self-actualize their Islamic practice and their Muslim identity? You are literally creating barriers to not only their spiritual growth, but their growth as a person, you’re providing an insecure attachment to Islam and you’re essentially saying that this environment is dangerous for you, so don’t enter it.
That’s why I wanted to do suicide prevention work from this particular perspective of promoting accepting and welcoming attitudes toward people of all backgrounds, because if there’s one problem in the Muslim community, it’s the fact that we’re very conditional about who we accept and who we promote. We have a lot of conditional love. We have people in Muslim society who are ready to back and support known abusers who are sexually exploitative male individuals in our community with decades of proof of abuse towards women in the community. And yet their name and reputation and credibility is unquestioned. And then you have someone like me who has every every credential you could ask for. And I’m constantly questioned. It’s not just unjust or a double standard, it is unacceptable, hypocritical, and damaging to our healing process as a collective and as individuals.
Elizabeth Ann Aziz: What are the big overarching goals or things you have in mind once you get the platform you need to help others on a bigger scale?
amelia noor-oshiro: Let’s first look at the infrastructure here, the train tracks. Let’s take a look at the roads that have already been paved. What currently exists? I’m just the woman who’s driving the train and if I lead the train into a train wreck, that’s because the path that was built for me was not structurally sound, or even nonexistent to begin with. So the answer to your question is, building the infrastructure is the starting point so that I can actually go down those roads, instead of having a train wreck on the roads that currently exist. This metaphor comes from my professional experience where I have observed that we, as a community, are in a very reactionary type of mindset right now. So the big goal is first to develop the infrastructure on the ground. And that is part of what I am tackling right now with my social media efforts.
So, specifically, we need to uncover more suicide prevention, risk and resilience factors on second-generation immigrants, instead of looking at it as like racial categories. The fact that some races, while they might be at risk due to racism, not all of these have have the unique exposure of acculturation stress that immigrant-origin people face when assimilating into a white supremacist society. That is a burden that falls largely upon first-, second-, and third -generation immigrants, including people who are forced migrants like refugees and asylees. I theorized that first- generation immigrants, depending on what age they arrived here, and depending on their occupation, and what different social exposures they have and, depending on what kind of support system they have — if they have their family here or if they’re here alone–. I posit that many of them don’t have the same level of understanding of racism and white supremacy in terms of how they connect to assimilation, and I’m saying that also from a lived experience perspective.
I feel like my mother, who is a first-generation immigrant to this country, didn’t have the same exposures…
Elizabeth Ann Aziz: …as you do, having grown up in this society and understanding it on like a cellular level. She’s just trying to like, figure out how to speak English the right way, you’re like, born into this country and like, you have all of that down from like early education so you have more like mental space to focus on, like, people like micro aggressing against you or like macro aggressive.
amelia noor-oshiro: Yeah, the way I like to explain it is that discrimination is multi-tiered; you know there’s institutional discrimination and interpersonal discrimination. But one thing that people often miss: Discrimination at the individual level varies in its perception from person to person. For example, a person who has a high income compared to a person with a low income is gonna not only be in different social environments, but also perceive the environment in a different way due to their socioeconomic status and of course other social differences.
Perceiving discrimination is, for me, a skill. And it’s something that I had to develop as a part of my own survival coping mechanisms, right now, to develop this skill to kind of pick up on white supremacy in order to survive in a racist white supremacist academic environment. I figured all of this out on my own. That is not the type of environment or exposure that my mom went through. Even though she has faced tons of discrimination herself for having an accent, wearing cultural clothes, and looking different, we have developed somewhat different sets of survival skills. I think that really ends up becoming the question, when it comes to second- generation immigrants, the people who are born here, and we take a look at what kind of world they are exposed to and the advent of social media happening. You’re not just facing the second- generation immigrant thing but you’re also kind of including Generation Z and millennial generation, and taking a look at how those intersect, and saying hey, realizing that hey, the new Gen Z and even millenials are we’re being socialized at a rapid pace. And that kind of socialization has mental health consequences if people do not have the proper coping mechanisms to properly adjust and adapt to these changes in society.
Elizabeth Ann Aziz: If we want to sum it up to the readers…why does this matter? Why do we need to be vigilant about addressing these topics in our community?
amelia noor-oshiro: There are way more suicide deaths than we know of, so many are covered up and underreported. We need to be clear about the cause of death so that the community begins to see how prevalent this issue is. With Muslims reporting a lifetime attempt of suicide at twice the odds of other faith groups, we must recognize this is not just an issue that affects some people. Even if not suicide, many people are depressed, anxious, and have thoughts and urges of harming themselves.
Life should be valued, Allah gave us life, They are Al-Hayy. They are Al-Khaliq, the Creator. They are also Al Wadud, the One who Loves. Look to the 99 names of Allah and really study them. You have the answer, that life is meant to be lived. Allah created us with divine perfection, made us just the way we are meant to be. We are loveable, we are worthy of love. Life on Earth is oppressive, and a part of our struggle is recognizing that that is a fact of life. And that is a reality.
Now, how do we deal with that and how do we respond to that oppression and trauma, and that violence — that structural violence? And the symbolic violence of not being able to self actualize, you know, how do we respond to that? Ultimately, the conversation is that we want to preserve life, so why not use suicide prevention work. Preserving life is a huge principle in Islam. You know, one huge myth that needs to be dispelled is that talking about suicide makes someone more likely to be suicidal; that’s not true. That is false. And I’m saying that with scientific data that backs me up. That is talking about suicide, actually, in most cases, makes people feel comfortable enough to bring it up and open up about their own issues. I am of the camp that we should be doing work to promote life, we should be doing life promotion work, and we should be doing that in the Muslim community, as a collective.