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Q&A: Shining a light on Muslim mental health in America

Stanford Medicine researchers collect data to better understand the state of mental heath in Muslim communities.

In the United States, suicide is a growing public health threat and the 10th leading cause of death. According to a new study from Stanford Medicine researchers, Muslims have a greater risk of attempting suicide compared with those of other faiths.

Rania Awaad, MD, a psychiatrist and director of the Stanford Muslim Mental Health Lab who led the study, has seen the impact of suicide in her clinic firsthand. Yet, when she searched for data on suicide attempts among Muslim Americans, the information was unclear.

To help gather reliable comparative data and lift the taboo on mental health within the Muslim community, Awaad surveyed almost 3,000 Americans who identified with one of several faiths -- Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Christian or other religions -- about mental health. In a recent paper, published in JAMA Psychiatry, Awaad and her team found that Muslim adults were two times more likely to report a history of suicide attempts compared with respondents from other faiths. This study, which was part of a larger annual Muslim poll by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, also included questions about access to mental health services and service utilization. That data is yet to be published.

The findings have motivated Awaad to increase available, reliable information about mental health in the Muslim community and provide better access to resources that can help Muslim individuals who are in crisis.

I recently spoke with Awaad to learn more about the research. This Q&A is a condensed and edited version of that conversation.

How did you become interested in this line of work?

I am trained as a psychiatrist and a religious faith leader in the Muslim community. Discussing mental health is still fairly difficult in many different communities, especially faith communities, and Muslims are no exception. The topic of suicide, especially, has really been a taboo within a taboo.  

I've always wanted to understand more about it because, anecdotally and clinically, I was seeing a definite increase in mental health problems, including suicide attempts or death by suicide, but there wasn't any good research -- there weren't any numbers or a good understanding of how frequently this was happening in the Muslim community.

What do you think accounts for the increase?

Prejudice and dislike of Muslim people are very real and prevalent. In our study, we saw a definite correlation between mental well-being and religious or racial discrimination. Muslim communities face both, as the largest racial-ethnic group of American Muslims are actually African Americans.

Previous literature also shows a link between this type of discrimination and suicide attempts. Higher rates of racial or religious discrimination leads to a decreased sense of belonging and increased sense of burden -- both of which directly contribute to the onset of mental health crises.

Are there connections between how Muslim communities are handling the pandemic and mental health?

This study was conducted in 2019, so it was prior to the pandemic. But we did a study of nearly 9,000 people, which was the largest global assessment of Muslims who had COVID-19, which included gauging mental health as it related to having the disease. There were, of course, increases in depression and anxiety, but we also found a lot of resilience and coping mechanisms -- a lot of them are faith based, such as performing daily prayers or reading the Quran.

Given all the other data about how things are going pretty terribly for the Muslim community, the COVID-19 part of it was really interesting and an unexpected finding.

How can this research help mental health care for Muslim Americans?

The lab is connected to a nonprofit, called Maritan.org, that translates a lot of research like this into psychoeducation for the layperson. We have an interesting campaign called the 500 Imam Campaign and the goal, by 2022, is to have trained at least 500 imams, or Muslim religious leaders, on mental health crisis response.

We have a manual, about 100 pages or so, on suicide prevention, intervention and postvention in the Muslim community. It's faith-specific and custom tailored for the community so people like imams will be amenable to training on the topic and feel like it speaks to them and their experiences.

Research shows that in the U.S. there are 3,000 mosques. Our plan is to train imams at all 3,000 in five years. We've done pilot trainings in Muslim communities, and there is a lot of interest already.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis and has suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-723-8255 or the Crisis Text Line by texting "HELLO" to 741741.

Other mental health resources can be found here.

Photo by Ümit Bulut

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