Photo depicting Muslim woman in a yellow hijab looking pensively out a window.

OPINION: Muslim Americans and Mental Health

by Jainaba Jawara and Maryam Shabar

We know that health disparities are a looming threat to minority groups’ quality of life and well-being. Yet, most popular attention on minority health disparities, both in the medical literature and in the public, focuses on racial and ethnic disparities. While these inequities are real and rightfully deserve attention, other demographic gaps, such as those among Muslim Americans, are also important. 

Part of what makes the Muslim population so beautiful is the immense diversity; no single racial or ethnic group constitutes more than 30% of the total Muslim American population. What’s more, millions of Muslims are also racial or ethnic minorities and (or) immigrants. This creates a risk of intersectional stigma — which can adversely affect individual mental health.

As authors, we care about this topic because our background as Muslim Americans means we cannot remain silent about the challenges that confront our community. Washington State is home to a steadily growing Muslim population, with a current population of over 100,000 Muslims, with the majority of them residing in King County. 

Growing up in the greater Seattle area, we have witnessed incidents of harassment and discrimination against Muslims. Muslims of all ages and backgrounds are subject to this discrimination. In school, Muslim kids often experience bullying and harassment; in public, there have been countless incidents including women’s hijab being pulled off and in which Muslims were called derogatory names and were subject to hate crimes. 

Having this happen to you or even seeing it happen to your fellow Muslims takes an immense toll on one’s sense of safety, belonging, confidence wearing Islamic dress (such as the hijab), and overall expressing one’s freedom of religion. 

Muslim Americans are at high risk of suicide and are up to two times more likely to have attempted suicide compared to other religious groups. According to NPR, two primary factors contribute to the mental health crisis for Muslims in the U.S.: religious discrimination (Islamophobia) and community stigma. 

It is important to note that unfortunately, data on Muslim mental health is scarce. However, the studies that do exist indicate that Muslims also face mental health struggles in addition to higher suicide risk including adjustment disorder, anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Other mental health disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, mood disorder, and schizophrenia are also reported in this data as more common among Muslim populations.

Following the tragedies of 9/11, American acceptance of Muslim Americans has steadily declined. Islamophobia-fueling rhetoric such as anti-Muslim campaigns from politicians contributes to the unfavorable views towards Muslims. Pew Research Center found that in 2005, 41% of Americans had favorable views toward Muslims. But in 2010, that number dropped to 30%. 

Islamophobia in the United States is a key contributor to the mental health disparities Muslim Americans face. It is psychologically taxing for anyone to feel hated and to be discriminated against by a society in which they wish to peacefully live.

Islamophobia is still a daily reality for Muslims all around the world. As Muslims in the United States, we have felt devalued in society, and Islamophobia has shaped our Muslim identity. At work, at educational institutions, on the street, and in our places of worship, we are continual targets and face the possibility of violence. We observe or experience violence personally or through social media. This makes us feel uncomfortable in our neighborhoods and isolates us from society.

Due to mental health stigmas, Muslims are less likely to obtain support and consequently may not receive the medical treatment they require. We need to popularize Muslim mental health resources and destigmatize mental health in our society. To begin that, we as Muslims need to be educated about the comprehensive teachings of Islam, including what to do if someone is afflicted by mental illness. Although Islam places a high value on mental health and well-being, Islamic psychology has a mental health approach that is distinct from western principles. Therefore, it is imperative to educate ourselves and mental health professionals about Islamic psychology principles.

Also to bridge the gap between non-Muslim health professionals and Muslim patients, mental health professionals need to become more educated about Islam so they approach this community sensitively. Islamic psychology, also known as nafs science, is an Islamic philosophical study of the psyche or mind that encompasses psychology, neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and psychiatry. Although the term nafs is connected to one’s soul, psyche, heart, or mind, it is difficult to translate into a single statement owing to the multidimensional usage of terms in the Arabic language. Muslim Americans may be more willing and encouraged to seek mental health services if the industry professionals are knowledgeable about Islamic psychology.

As authors, we are not experts in Islamic psychology, or psychiatrists, but we want to address mental health issues in our community. We cannot overemphasize the urgent need for additional clinics and resources that are geared towards Muslim American communities’ mental health challenges. Muslim American doctors must be included in the development and revision of mental health tools so that they are more accessible and sensitive to Muslim populations. These tools should then be available to non-Muslim practitioners. 

Society’s judgments most commonly arise from a lack of knowledge. The Institute for Muslim Mental Health is a resource for learning more. Accepting that a mental health diagnosis is nothing to be ashamed of, getting treatment and assisting others in understanding how mental health awareness could improve their life and the lives of their loved ones is one of the most impactful things you can do.

The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.

Jainaba Jawara (freshman) and Maryam Shabar (incoming freshman) are students at the University of Washington. As Muslim Americans, we write with the purpose of bringing awareness, reducing stigma, and discussing relevant topics relating to the mental health disparities within the Muslim American communities.

📸 Featured Image: Photo by Zurijeta/

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