University of Miami: Psychology team hopes to increase mental health care for Muslim Americans

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Psychology professor Amy Weisman de Mamani, and graduate students Salman Shaheen Ahmad and Merranda McLaughlin, have started a research project to better understand and address the gaps in mental health care for Muslim Americans.
Salman Shaheen Ahmad can still recall the day a family member was beaten at his Washington, D.C.-area high school simply because he acknowledged that he was Muslim.

Ahmad also has become accustomed to security guards at airports scrutinizing him more thoroughly than others, simply because of his name and beard.

Merranda McLaughlin has a close Muslim friend who wears a head covering. And the friend cannot forget the day when she was shopping in Miami and a woman pointed at her and called her a terrorist in Spanish.

These are just a few of the examples of Islamophobia—dislike, fear of, and prejudice against Islam or Muslims—which is widespread in the United States. Hate crimes against Muslims have steadily continued in the United States, peaking a few years after the September 11 attacks and again around the time of the 2016 elections. And stress about this prejudice is taking a toll on the mental health of Muslim Americans.

Research indicates that Muslim Americans have higher rates of depression and anxiety than other minority groups, and may also be two times more likely to attempt suicide than other religious groups. Yet, Muslims often avoid mental health services, and new research from a team in the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychology sheds further light on this phenomenon.

“We often hear negative rhetoric about Muslims in America, and how Islam is un-American, which is harmful to Muslims, even if they haven’t directly experienced any physical harm,” said McLaughlin, a clinical psychology graduate student on the team. “We’ve learned that Muslim Americans are at high risk for mental health difficulties because of the high rates of Islamophobia and their experiences of discrimination in the U.S.”

That’s why Ahmad, McLaughlin, and psychology professor Amy Weisman de Mamani started the Muslim American Project. Through this collaboration, the trio hopes to conduct research that will broaden their knowledge about the unique psychological needs of the Muslim American community, while also raising awareness among them about the benefits of mental health services and the interventions available to them.

“Muslims often lack knowledge about mental health, and there are stigmas within the community regarding mental illness. So, they are less likely to seek help. Combined with the discrimination they face, this puts them at a high risk for suffering through mental health concerns,” said Ahmad, also a clinical psychology graduate student who was raised Muslim.

The team has already published five studies on the topic. And this fall, they are launching a series of virtual therapy sessions tailored to Muslims across Florida. Since Weisman de Mamani pioneered the practice of culturally informed therapy for people living with schizophrenia, the team is adapting her model to also help Muslims struggling with more typical mental health concerns—like depression and anxiety. They are currently reaching out to mosques and Muslim American groups across the state and hope to start sessions in the next few weeks.

“We know from research that ethnic minorities are more likely to drop out of therapy, so during culturally informed therapy, we ask questions to explore what really matters to each person,” said Weisman de Mamani, who also serves as associate director of the adult division in the Department of Psychology. “And research shows that culturally informed therapy outperforms typical psychotherapy models by helping individuals in a more personalized way.”

Recently, the group published a study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, from a nationwide survey of 350 Muslim Americans. One of the main findings was that Muslims who believe Islamophobia is high in the U.S. often experience greater psychological distress and often do not seek mental health services.

“There is a cultural mistrust between many Muslims and American society today, so a lot of Muslims who experience discrimination may not want to seek help from any authority—whether it is law enforcement or psychological help—because they feel they are taking a risk by putting themselves out there,” Ahmad said.

For Muslim Americans who do not seek mental health assistance, easily accessible community-based services and treatment from a Muslim therapist or similar race person may help entice them to attend therapy, the study also revealed.

“Unfortunately, even if Muslims reach out to health professionals, many psychotherapists in the United States are unfamiliar with Islamic practices and may struggle to appropriately integrate cultural and Islamic beliefs into their therapy sessions,” McLaughlin said. “This is why, prior to therapy, we will ask about these preferences and assign clients to therapy groups that can meet their needs.”

The team has also learned that Muslims who immigrated to the U.S. often have superior mental health than Muslims born in this country. Another study showed that people who convert to Islam are often more vulnerable to mental health challenges related to their faith, compared to people who were raised Muslim.

Ahmad also investigated “spiritual bypass,” or using spiritual beliefs and practices to avoid seeking psychological help. This is the idea that praying more and becoming more devout can help a person overcome emotional pain or illness, a common belief among some Muslims. While many seek help from their local imam or spiritual guide, these leaders often do not have the mental health training needed to guide someone through a crisis.

“Using religion and spirituality to help cope with your difficulties is beneficial. However, using it while avoiding mental health care when you need it may actually reduce those benefits for your mental health,” Ahmad said, citing a study the team published in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.

Along with the therapy sessions the team will soon begin offering, Ahmad is planning to visit mosques and Muslim American groups throughout Florida as part of his dissertation. He will offer educational presentations about the psychological challenges this population faces, highlight the strengths already possessed by Muslim communities to help address these challenges, and share resources to find assistance.

“We want to further the mental health literacy and care in the Muslim community because at this point there is a huge need,” Ahmad said. “Hopefully, through our efforts, Muslims will be more open to therapy, as well as the improved treatments available to them.”

All three hope that their efforts will ultimately help curb the ongoing distress that many Muslims face alone.

“We want to break down the notion that psychotherapy is incompatible with Islam and a broader goal is to see if we can offer interventions to reduce suicide and stress in this community,” Weisman de Mamani said.

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