Disclaimer: This article is in no way meant to substitute for medical or mental health advice from a trained and educated mental health professional. Muslim Girl encourages those who need help to seek it and encourages the use of resources such as therapists, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and trained mental health professionals. You should never try to manage your mental health alone. You are not alone, and there is no shame in seeking professional help. Muslim Girl also does not recommend self-diagnosis; again, please seek the help of a professional. The following are the views and experiences of the author only. If you are having a mental health crisis, please call the national crisis line at 988 to speak with someone who can help.
Over the last few years, the conversation about mental health has been spearheaded by young people. Although Gen Z has tried to communicate to different adults about their mental struggles, many adult Boomers, Gen Xers, and even millennials were not raised at a time when mental illnesses were given the awareness or treatment they deserve.
Sadly, this has led to many young people today feeling unheard or dismissed by the adults in their lives, resulting in young people struggling without treatment. One of the groups more apprehensive about reaching out for help is young Muslims.
statistics show that Muslim students are hesitant to get help
Springtide Research Institute, which surveys and interviews Gen Z by the thousands each year, recently discovered that Muslim students in middle school, high school, and college (ages 13-25) are more hesitant to talk to their parents, peers, or a school counselor/therapist about their mental health struggles than students of other groups.
These findings are from Springtide’s latest study, Mental Health & Gen Z: What Educators Need to Know:
● 55% of Muslim students agree, “My parents/guardians do not take my mental health concerns seriously.” (Non-Muslim students: 44%)
● 54% of Muslim students say they’ve hesitated to talk to the school counselor/therapist because: “I wouldn’t want my parents/guardians to know I was meeting with a school counselor/therapist.” (Non-Muslim students: 48%)
● 71% of Muslim students say they’ve hesitated to talk to the school counselor/therapist because: “A school counselor/therapist might not understand me or the challenges I am having.” (Non-Muslim students: 61%)
● 64% of Muslim students say they’ve hesitated to talk to the school counselor/therapist because: “I wouldn’t want other students to know I was meeting with a school counselor/therapist.” (Non-Muslim students: 47%)
These statistics show that Muslim youth are less likely to seek help than their non-Muslim peers. This is especially concerning when almost half of Muslim youth report being bullied by students and even sometimes their teachers.
The mental health stigma in Muslim spaces
Mental illness is rarely discussed in Muslim households. Oftentimes, the stigma toward mental illness stems from the cultures many Muslim parents were immersed in prior to coming to the United States.
Mental health in South Asian and Arab countries is often overlooked. In 2019, about a quarter of Muslim countries had a suicide rate above the global average.
Many Muslim adults were raised not knowing the complex contours of mental illness outside of misleading labels like “crazy” or “unhinged.” In contrast, other less prevalent illnesses like depression and anxiety disorders were seen as a normal part of everyday life.
In a recent study conducted by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, one second-generation college student from an Arab background described the difficulty of navigating mental health issues with her parents:
“I feel like many of our issues are overlooked by our parents who grew up in a different background…it is taboo to be speaking about mental or psychological issues in the Arab/Muslim community and only recently, with the new generations, are we starting to change and progress, accepting the fact that ALL people have the same issues regardless of religion or race. Still, some stay more conservative to their cultural beliefs and avoid seeing professional help or taking their family members to professionals.”
Our parent’s upbringings have created a cycle of illiteracy toward mental illness that persists in many Muslim homes today.
Along with a lack of understanding, shame obstructs mental health in Muslim spaces. Shame culture is still the norm in South Asian countries, and having a mental illness is seen as a stain on the family or treated as if it is reasonably within one’s control to fix. Growing up with this shame connected to mental illness decreases the likelihood of reaching out for help. For example, one study of Arab immigrant women who were victims of abuse found that a majority of participants felt shame in seeking formal mental health services.
Some Muslim students hesitate to seek help from peers and mental health professionals, such as school counselors, out of fear that others won’t understand the experiences of shame and vulnerability that are often present when Muslims disclose emotional difficulties.
Eliminating the stigma
How can we eliminate this hesitation among Muslims to see mental health struggles for what they are?
The shame attached to seeking help needs to be erased. By breaking that cycle of shame that is so deeply ingrained in our thoughts, we can learn to be more comfortable with our own minds. By starting conversations in our homes and validating our emotions, we can improve our relationship with mental health. If our parents also participate in the effort to receive help, it could close the gap between our generations on this issue.
It is imperative that school counselors learn to understand and empathize with Muslims who experience this. That internal shame felt by many Muslim students is reversible once we learn how to be comfortable with receiving help. Counselors should affirm that their intent is not to undermine religious beliefs, as is sometimes the fear of Muslim students, but to create a safe place to discuss spirituality. In that vein, Muslim students should also know that seeking help is not indicative of being non-religious or not religious enough.
It is imperative that school counselors learn to understand and empathize with Muslims who experince this. That internal shame felt by many Muslim students is reversible once we learn how to be comfortable with receiving help.
Too often, the focus on American Muslims is reduced to their experiences of Islamophobia. While these experiences are very real and painful, it’s easy to forget that on the other side of these experiences is trauma, post-traumatic stress, and the need for healing. On top of that, there are forces inside and outside of Muslim communities making Muslim students hesitant and fearful to seek healing.
This is where classmates, teachers, and counselors can make a difference in the lives of Muslim students. Understanding and validating their personal and cultural experiences can help ensure a future in which Muslim Americans feel safe and supported in getting the help they need.
If you are having a mental health crisis, please call the national crisis line at 988 to speak with someone who can help.