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Rania Awaad

Stanford psychiatrist focuses on mental health needs of Muslims

Rania Awaad uses her training in psychiatry and Islamic law to address the health needs of Muslims at Stanford and throughout the Bay Area.

Prior to studying medicine, Stanford psychiatrist Rania Awaad, MD, studied Islamic law. As a local religious leader, she said that many people in her community are surprised to learn that she’s also a physician.

However, this dual training is at the heart of Awaad’s research and clinical work, which focuses on the mental health needs of Muslims. I recently spoke with her to learn more.

What are the mental health challenges faced by Muslims?

In our recent sociopolitical climate, there's been quite a bit of negative focus on Muslims and other groups. And we have the highest level of hate crimes against Muslims ever in American history — about six times higher than post 9/11.

In the Bay Area, I'm part of a consortium of mental health and general medical providers who are trying to figure out how Islamophobia — the fear of the Islam religion or Muslims — affects the general health of Muslims. So far, we’ve seen a lot of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

There's already quite a bit of PTSD within the community, because many Muslims that immigrate to America come from areas of conflict. Current policies can trigger immigrants' underlying PTSD, anxiety and depression, as I recently described in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Are there barriers to mental health care for your patients? 

There’s a lot of paranoia about medical providers documenting their issues in an electronic medical record. They’re afraid this medical information will be combined with a Muslim registry. Initially we told patients not to worry, because unconstitutional things like that don’t happen here. But then the travel ban helped substantiate their fears.

There are also barriers directly tied to faith beliefs — concepts like the evil eye or spirits. If someone is having psychosis, for example, people may say he is possessed and should be taken to his religious leader instead of a mental health professional.

What can you do to overcome these challenges?

Mental health professionals can approach a patient’s faith leader for a religious consultation. I help train chaplains and imams and I'm also teaching doctors to engage with faith leaders. For many people, their faith is a source of strength and support. So leaving that out completely means that you're not really providing adequate, holistic care.

There are a limited number of mental health professionals proficient in understanding the Muslim faith and culture. Through the Khalil Center, I'm working with other dual-trained practitioners to develop a manual, book and training seminar on Islamic psychology from a practical clinical perspective. We’re trying to provide guidance for practitioners without Islamic training to work with this unique minority group.

How did you end up specializing in the mental health of Muslims?

I thought I was going to be an ob/gyn. But during medical school, I married my husband who is an imam and a director of a nonprofit. At one point he told me what our community really needs is someone who can work in mental health, based on what he saw as a community leader. He inspired me to become a psychiatrist.

I also feel my dual training was meant to be. In high school I embarked on a lifelong journey of formal Islamic studies training. I’m currently a professor of Islamic Law at Zaytuna College, a Muslim liberal arts college in Berkeley. My dual training kickstarted the Stanford Muslim Mental Health Lab and Wellness Program that I founded and direct, and it has allowed me to lay the groundwork to train others.

What are some other things you're working on?

The SMMH Lab is part of a consortium that is studying the effectiveness of integrating faith concepts with therapy for different faith communities — Muslim, Jewish and Christian groups. We’re using evidence-based, objective metrics like the depression inventory scale.

I also oversee the Bay Area Muslim Mental Health Professionals group, which has led to many other initiatives like a Bay Area Muslim mental health community advisory board and a crisis response team.

Photo, of Rania Awaad giving a recent talk, by Anum Ahmad

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