With hate crime on the rise in the UK and continuing discrimination in many areas of life, Basit Mahmood discusses an issue that gains relatively little attention – the effect of Islamophobia on the mental health of Muslims
We usually have no problem accepting that the environment we grow up in and experience has an impact upon our emotional wellbeing. So why is it that we overlook the link between an environment that has become increasingly hostile towards Muslims, and the subsequent impact it has on mental health?
When you are told you’re an ‘enemy within’, belonging to a suspect community that isn’t welcome here, or when you only see people like yourself on TV and film portrayed as terrorists, drug dealers or victims of forced marriage, it inevitably leads to feelings of powerlessness, anxiety and a constant state of fear. Such an environment, where you have your humanity constantly questioned and where simply being a Muslim becomes a daily struggle, has come to have a negative effects for many.
I’ve seen it first hand, where many British Muslims internalise negative messaging which affects their confidence, making themselves question how they will be perceived if they were to wear a hijab, or rule themselves out of a certain profession (such as the media and the police, due to the associated perception of being being discriminated against). In addition, being constantly on high alert because of an increase in hate crimes towards Muslims, always scouring the environment for risks in a state of hypervigilance are all issues that affect mental health and emotional wellbeing.
“The constant fear of abuse led to many Muslims feeling low on confidence, making matters worse for a community that is already feeling isolated and less likely to engage with mental health services”
It’s an issue that is overlooked, not least of all because it’s a ‘hidden second layer’ for many Muslims seeking support for mental health difficulties, but also due to the lack of awareness surrounding the important issue. The Runneymede Trust’s report on Islamophobia highlights an increased risk between perceptions of discrimination and mental disorders, and this is echoed by mental health charities and campaigners.
Jolel Miah, founder of Our Minds Matter, a charity promoting mental health awareness in Luton, a town with a significant Muslim population, says Islamophobia is a form of abuse, whether it manifests itself in physical attacks or the perception that Muslims are constantly ‘under the microscope’, which he has seen lead to ‘depression and low self-esteem’.
He said: “There is a strong correlation between Islamophobia and mental health difficulties. It affects your confidence, there is a feeling of disempowerment, there is a suspicion about you and you feel more vulnerable”.
Jolel also highlighted how the constant fear of abuse led to many Muslims feeling low on confidence, making matters worse for a community that is already feeling isolated and less likely to engage with mental health services.
When it comes to mental health training and awareness, he highlighted how more needed to be done by those delivering services to tailor support to meet the needs of those who are suffering from mental health difficulties directly as a result of Islamophobia.
Jolel Miah, founder of Our Minds Matter
The idea that mental health difficulties for Muslims as a result of Islamophobia are a hidden secondary layer when many British Muslims seek help, is supported by Myira Khan, founder of the Muslim Counsellor and Psychotherapist Network.
Although many may not initially seek support for mental health difficulties caused directly by Islamophobia, it becomes clear to Myira that the fears and anxieties as a result of it, present themselves later on.
Whether it be young Muslims feeling as though their place is ‘at the bottom of the hierarchy’ when it comes to applying for jobs or the feeling that you’re not going to be ‘treated fairly or valued the same way as others’ simply because of who you are, Myira feels their “emotional needs are not being met”, which has an adverse impact on mental health.
Myira added: “Emotional wellbeing also depends on how your identity is perceived, you either feel in a place of autonomy or power, or in a position of powerlessness with no autonomy and no ability to make change”. She believes there’s a clear link between the environment one grows up in and mental health, which when your place is at the bottom with no feeling of acceptance or having a stake in society, means a harmful effect on emotional wellbeing.
“Her own stepmum is afraid to take children to the park for fear of what might happen after hearing about the increase in anti-Muslim hate crime. It means staying indoors more, which in itself is not conducive to mental wellbeing”
Mental health advocate Jamilla Hekmoun, believes the anxiety around being Muslim in an age in which hate crime and Islamophobia are on the rise means many feel anxious simply about going out on their own.
She says her own stepmum is afraid to take children to the park for fear of what might happen after hearing about the increase in anti-Muslim hate crime. It means staying indoors more, which in itself is not conducive to mental wellbeing. “I know of relatives who are afraid of being seen as different”, she said.
Jamilla also highlighted how a number of Muslims who seek treatment for their mental health, then go on to face barriers with their psychotherapist, who may not only lack an awareness about how Islamophobia has compounded their problems, but may well hold Islamophobic assumptions themselves. She said that some could frown upon those who used prayer to help them, in conjunction with other counselling and therapy.
It’s about time mental health practitioners and others began ensuring that the link between Islamophobia and mental health is addressed. Whether it be highlighting the struggles Muslims face because of it in programmes such as Mental Health First Aid training, or ensuring therapists and practitioners are aware of the ‘hidden layer’ of anxiety that many seeking help may be experiencing, much needs to be done to highlight awareness about an often-ignored struggle.
Basit Mahmood is a freelance journalist and columnist for Media DiversifiedFollow @BasitMahmood91