Are We Paying Enough Attention to the Mental Health of Muslim Men During Ramadan?

Two decades of pervasive Islamophobia has created a system that rarely puts Muslim men in the limelight. And once it does, it’s for all of the wrong reasons. 

Two decades of pervasive Islamophobia has created a system that rarely puts Muslim men in the limelight. And once it does, it’s for all of the wrong reasons. 

[This article was originally published in April of 2022, however remains just as relevant today]

In his first State of the Union address, President Joe Biden announced a new strategy to ease the collective trauma resulting from two years of pandemic life. And although he promised to revamp America’s faulty mental care system by strengthening the mental health workforce and forcing insurers to cover psychiatric treatments, it’s not enough to address America’s mental health crisis.

Importantly, while Biden admitted minority communities disproportionately lack access to sufficient mental health services, this plan fails to mention the demographic most vulnerable to mental illness: Muslim men. While American men in general account for over 75% of suicides, American Muslim men are twice as likely to attempt to take their own life. 

There are many reasons why. Firstly, men in general struggle to receive adequate help because symptoms of depression vary in men – which could be the result of toxic masculinity – making them more challenging to identify. 

Secondly, cultural and religious barriers prevent Muslim men from a correct diagnosis. For instance, mental illness carries certain stigmas in Muslim communities. In many South Asian languages for example, the word “depression” doesn’t even exist. For this reason, studies demonstrate how matching patients with therapists of the same ethnicity, language, or cultural background notably improves therapy outcomes because these taboos and cultural nuances are implicitly understood. 

But this is only part of the picture. 

Where current policy interventions fall short is understanding Islamophobia’s role. Twenty years after 9/11, American Muslims are still haunted by anti-Muslim hatred – further fuelled by Covid-19 conspiracy theories and a record rise in hate crimes, many of which occur online with little consequence.

Indeed, the rise of online hate crimes forms a critical component of Biden’s strategy to tackle the mental health crisis. In particular, Biden’s strategy focuses heavily on tech companies’ role and how social media giants have failed to protect their users – mainly children. However, tech’s negative influence is also apparent when looking at the spread of anti-Muslim content

Two decades of pervasive Islamophobia has created a system that rarely puts Muslim men in the limelight. And once it does, it’s for all of the wrong reasons

Media discourse with racist undertones have manufactured the concept of a good or bad Muslim. And the stereotypical portrayal of Muslims in entertainment has constructed a distorted image of Muslim men as terrorists, misogynists, irrationally angry, and a threat to Western life. Muslim men are perpetually caricatured or “othered” – which is already an isolating experience for anyone, but especially those who are struggling with mental health challenges.

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So how do we begin to prioritize Muslim men? Well, through a multi-prong approach. One which leverages the power of technology, information, and storytelling.

Although there have been rare moments where Muslim actors and films have been recognized and awarded by mainstream society, there needs to be more initiatives that counter the problematic representation of Muslims and Islam. 

Therefore, platforms created by Muslims for Muslims, but also for the wider public, are crucial in capturing more authentic experiences of Muslims – not only in America but across the globe. 

Muslims must be given opportunities to share their unfiltered stories, even if these at times are raw, messy, and rather complicated. By telling difficult stories and depicting complex Muslim characters on screen, Muslim journalists and filmmakers can begin to break the stigma around mental illness and show Muslim men they are not alone – and it’s okay to struggle. 

In the meantime, we – as a community – must do more. This Ramadan, the first one free of social distancing since 2019, offers a unique window of opportunity to progress the mental health and Islamophobia debate. 

We know that religion offers a valuable tool to combat mental distress by providing a sense of belonging during uncertain times. Therefore, the holy month of Islam provides an opportunity to not only reflect on unhealthy habits, but also to practice mindfulness, improve mental resilience, and ensure members of your family and community are alright.

Devoting millions of dollars to mental health services are crucial but won’t work if the most at-risk group is ignored. American Muslims desperately need a mental health strategy that considers the nuances of their experiences and mental burdens. 

This month, we finally have access to those most vulnerable in our communities – an opportunity we cannot afford to ignore.

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