The silent epidemic: Islamophobia, communal trauma and mental health in Muslim communities

Islamophobia, muslim mental health and trauma
6 min read
09 November, 2021
Increasing levels of Islamophobia, often manifesting itself in violent attacks, has left Muslim communities worldwide with deep mental health trauma about their belonging. However, fears of raising these issues has made the problem worse.

On 6 June 2021, five members of a Muslim family were mowed down by a black pickup truck in London, Ontario, which resulted in four of them being killed and a nine-year-old boy being severely injured. 

Four months after the incident, the accused, Nathaniel Veltman, who is being charged with four counts of murder and one count of attempted murder has had his hearing pushed forward multiple times.

The latest court hearing has seen Veltman’s lawyers asking for another extension of the case with the accused being remanded in custody till the next hearing on October 20th. 

"The incidence comes after France reported a 53% increase in Islamophobic incidents, with 235 attacks on Muslims in 2020, and more of these numbers and statistics are reported almost every day"

Proceedings have been moving slowly despite the massive outcry from both the Canadian public and global leaders like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.

The incidence comes after France reported a 53 percent increase in Islamophobic incidents, with 235 attacks on Muslims in 2020, and more of these numbers and statistics are reported almost every day.

But beyond the news reports, the impact of Islamophobia on greater society – particularly on the mental health of Muslims both individually and as a community – seems to largely be neglected.

Ayo Olatunji, a final year medical student at UCL and community worker who works to fight against Islamophobia, racism and discrimination describes the impact of Islamophobia as causing “deep searing lines of trauma within Muslim communities, in that constantly having to be on guard they can’t deal with this trauma.”

This trauma can manifest within individual actions in various ways, with studies showing how people who routinely experience harassment or are victims to hate crimes feel a need to  “discard their religious identifiers (e.g., the hijab or headscarf for Muslim women, the turban for Sikh men) or cease attendance at their places of worship.”

Dr Annie Hadi, who is now a family trained doctor shares that she was studying at the University of Toronto when 9/11 happened and points out how she questioned her decision to continue wearing a hijab because she was concerned for her safety. 

The trauma of dealing with hate crimes, or even everyday microaggressions is not just limited to individuals but impacts communities at large. “The biggest thing it does is that it takes away the feeling of security. When security is lacking, people develop anxiety around mundane daily activities, like taking a walk. This anxiety can seep into parenting behaviours and can be passed on to young children as well. It might also trigger rumination and regret about the decision to immigrate,” says Israa Nasir, founder of Well.Guide, a mental health platform focused on transforming the way we talk about mental health, taking it from a place of shame to a place of empowerment.

But when it comes to talking about solutions to these harms, it because all the more difficult when dealing with them under to context of the stigmas through which mental health is perceived in many Muslim communities.

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Writer Yousra Samir Imran, the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick shares how this is a topic that was very prevalent in her own explorations of Muslim communities within her book.

“Many Muslims feel discouraged from being open about their mental health conditions because there are still members of the community who say things such as 'you’re depressed/anxious etc. due to a lack of faith in God' or 'it’s not a medical problem, you are being affected by Satan/a jinn and should see a sheikh.' 

"Another challenge Muslims face, particularly single women, is being told that they should hide their mental health issues as it will negatively affect their marriage prospects. These stigmas can make Muslims feel silenced or ashamed, and bottle up everything they are thinking and feeling,” Yousra tells The New Arab. 

It’s not that these conversations need to be limited to instances of extreme hate crimes like the attack in Ontario but rather need to become an everyday part of our lives as a counter to the daily pressures of microaggressions and navigating identities as Muslims.

“There’s this psychological preparation you have to do when you leave your home,” says Olatunji, adding, “for me as a Black Muslim, I have these intersections that cross over – being Muslim, being Black – where my racial identity and religious identity are things that are being targeted in different ways.”

It’s the lack of understanding of these nuances of identity and how they shape lived experiences that make mental health advocacy so difficult both within and outside of Muslim communities – even within the mental health space at large.

Dr Hadi, who has a specific interest in geriatrics and psychiatry also points out the substantial financial barriers to seeking help within many immigrant Muslim communities, adding that funding should be increased.

"Structurally, we need to educate service providers and clinicians in culturally aware and competent services, and understanding the nuances of Muslim communities"

She further points out the struggles present for Muslims seeking help both within and outside of Muslim spaces. “In non-Muslim countries, the cultural and religious context of a Muslim seeking mental health care is often not well understood and thus, much less effective. In the Muslim world, resources and the understanding of the need for such care both in the form of medications and therapy are limited. Both scenarios leave a huge gap in receiving equitable care for those in need,” she explains. 

For many mental health spaces, Olatunji also points out how a discounting of aspects of spirituality and the soul can be 'othering' for Muslims who may want to seek help within these spaces. But beyond just not giving importance to aspects of spirituality, a lack of literacy and understanding around practising Islam risk making mental health spaces dangerous for Muslims as well.

“Muslims in the West are sometimes wary of using mental health services because of state surveillance – for example, in the case of the UK, it’s PREVENT. Muslims in the UK worry that non-Muslim therapists/mental health workers may report them for making the slightest statement about their beliefs. On the other hand, some Muslims are also worried when going to a Muslim therapist that the Muslim therapist may be judgemental, and may try to impose certain religious ideas/teachings during the therapy,” Yousra adds. 

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Despite writers like Yousra addressing these topics through their writings, and with social media and digital platforms playing a huge role in challenging stigmas, there seems to be a long way to go in bringing about a larger change for the Muslim community as a whole.

Cultural awareness within mental health spaces is a major way in which this much-needed change can be brought about.

“Structurally, we need to educate service providers and clinicians in culturally aware and competent services, and understanding the nuances of Muslim communities. We also need to create more programmes that can increase mental health education in Muslim communities,” Nasir says.

So many Muslim experiences in public settings are clouded by either shame or fear, and these dominant emotions become the defining part of so much of their lives. It’s high time to demand structural change and hold those in power responsible.

Anmol Irfan is a freelance journalist with bylines in VICE, HUCK, Guardian amongst others. She has experience writing on minority politics, activism, and gender issues. She is also the founder of the Pakistani community platform, Perspectives Magazine 

Follow her on Twitter @anmolirfan22