Islamophobia and the Rise of Mental Illness

Amani Mheisen, a master’s student in Public Health at Western Michigan University, had always a blissful person and enjoyed college for all its wonderful community building opportunities. She loved walking around engaging in diverse gatherings, meeting new people, and being able to express her identity without worry. However, this was all before the epidemic of Islamophobia reached the hearts of so many people. “Once I saw how the media was portraying Muslims and the hate speech being spewed, my heart felt like it was physically being crushed,” says Amanie, “I just had this feeling of anxiety consume me, I couldn’t stop thinking about how people really must have felt when they were around me.”

The rise of Islamophobia in our western society has triggered an unprecedented animosity toward innocent Muslims nationwide and is leading many individuals to feelings of mental distress. Especially now after the new administration of Donald Trump has been elected into office. Making policies and naming them things like the “Muslim Ban” are only promoting the notion that it is acceptable to discriminate against minorities.

According to a survey conducted in 2015 by YouGov, nearly 55 percent of Americans had a strongly unfavorable perspective about Islam and for many Muslim-Americans like Amani, this is the reality of their everyday lives. Constantly having to face harassment and prejudice is leading to a dramatic increase in mental health illnesses among Muslims all over the world, especially here in the United States. Amani reflected on a certain situation that really made her question her own safety as a young woman living in America under a Muslim identity. “I was walking to class and two guys were walking behind me, laughing….suddenly I felt them get closer and one of them grabbed the back of my Hijab (headscarf) and pulled down on it.”  She didn’t know what to do after that, the two boys ran off and Amani was left to sit there on her own, terrified.

Osama Odeh, a well respected Muslim youth director at the American Muslim Center in Dearborn, Michigan, as well as at Plymouth-Canton High-school, is constantly having conversations with high-school students who are facing struggles with their mental health because of religious discrimination. “It’s difficult for children to keep a positive outlook on things when they do not even feel welcomed in their own country,” says Osama. “We really try our best to counsel the kids on how to stay positive and find comfort and security in who they are.”

A study conducted in 2014 and published in the Journal of Muslim Mental Health by psychologist Mona M. Amer and psychologist Joseph D. Hovey of the University of Toledo, found that before the events of 9/11 the vast majority of Muslim-Americans reported feeling safe to extremely safe. However, after those events, all feelings of safety and comfort within their own society quickly crumbled. More than 82 percent of Muslim-Americans reported feeling unsafe to extremely unsafe following the attacks on the Twin Towers. Muslims living within the western society have no way of escaping it. Jumana Abusaleh, a female youth director at Plymouth-Canton High-School, reiterated the notion that the majority of media outlets and political leaders have only attributed to the prejudice against Muslims, “especially Muslim women who show more physical attributes of their religious identity,” by condoning these stereotypes.

According to FBI data that was compiled from a study by Princeton University’s Loon Watch, only 6 percent of terrorist attacks in the United States between 1980 and 2005 were committed by Islamist extremist. In a report conducted in 2014 by Charles Kurzman, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina, Kurzman stated that “The United States suffered approximately 14,000 murders in 2013. Since 9/11, Muslim-American terrorism has claimed 37 lives in the United States, out of more than 190,000 murders during this period.”  This fear and hatred against Muslims has long been instigated by media outlets and now more than ever it is weighing heavily on the mental health of the Muslim population.

Another aspect that has contributed to the increase in mental health illness among Muslim-Americans is the lack of actual research regarding these issues. In an research investigation by Aasim Padela, a Muslim doctor and professor at the University of Chicago, he found that only 10 out of the 18 million research studies conducted between the years of 1980-2009 were somewhat related to the health implications of Muslim-Americans. The lack of research also contributes to the lack of adequate treatment by clinical physicians. According to an article by Lance Laird, Boston University School of Medicine, and published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, many doctors are unaware of the stress or anxiety Muslims in their communities face as a result of racial and religious discrimination. The consistency of harassment and discrimination can have traumatizing effects on the self-value an individual feels about themselves and what quicker way to make someone feel isolated and devalued than to consistently harass them? Some women and children are afraid to leave their homes because of this unconscious hatred against Muslims.

Although there are over 2.6 million Muslims in America, so many feel isolated from the society they have spent their entire lives in. Imam Mohamed Mabrouk of the Islamic center of Temecula Valley in California stressed the importance of a strong supportive community and reiterated the idea that no group of people, nor an individual person, should ever be made to feel isolated in a society they depend on so heavily. “We need to bring people together, we need to share narratives, and we need to be empathetic to those who feel that their social and religious identities are being oppressed,” says Mohamed.

In the end, Amani eventually began to get more involved in here Muslim community and started a small dialogue group at school for students to come and share stories about their identities and how it effects their daily lives. “I’m happy that I was able to find kids that shared the same love and compassion for self-righteousness as I do,” says Amani. Hopefully more individuals will be able to take a stand and fight to raise awareness for those too mentally distraught to voice their own struggle. 

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