Reflections on BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Month

As a Muslim woman who is a daughter of Pakistani immigrants, I am no stranger to stigma, discrimination, and overall disconnectedness from the general American community. I recall “diversity days” in public school where my predominately white classmates gawked at my shalwar kameez, our traditional clothing, and tossed my Pakistani flag around the classroom. I vividly remember the first time I was called a terrorist when boys warned my peers to “stay away from my backpack.” However, I also know the sting of fellow Muslims admonishing how I dress and judging my sexuality. 

I have so much pride in my ethnicity and my religion, as they have gifted me with the qualities that make me who I am today. But these lived experiences and my background have given me a new perspective — one that puts mental health at the forefront of my hopes for the people of my community. 

Dealing with discrimination has been a lifelong fight for many Muslims. These struggles are widely shared and intersectional — according to Pew Research, 58% of Muslims in the U.S. are immigrants, with no single racial or ethnic majority in the population. Many American Muslims deal with the trials of Islamophobia and grapple with the xenophobia and racism that is all too prevalent in the U.S.

A study published in the Journal of Islamic Faith and Practice shows that Muslims suffered increased assaults and intimidation in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s term — in New Zealand, 51 Muslims were shot and killed by two men who claimed to be inspired by Trump as their “symbol of renewed white identity.” Muslims are also directly targeted in the political landscape — the “Muslim Ban” in the U.S. coupled with the rise of nationalist rhetoric, which views immigrants as “other,” have contributed to the negative and discriminatory experiences of Muslim Americans. Even further, research by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) shows that in the Texas Legislature alone there were 16 “Anti-Sharia” bills introduced between 2011 and 2017. Many people, including my own family, left their home country to risk it all for the so-called “American dream,” only to find out that they were not as welcome as they may have thought. 

These events and more have contributed greatly to the general anxiety, depression, and trauma faced by Muslim Americans, and have resulted in many attempts to assimilate to American culture or become “less threatening.” However, this is not a realistic or sustainable option and it can lead to such turmoil that it becomes a matter of life and death. A study released by the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2021 found that U.S. Muslim adults were twice as likely to report a history of suicide attempts as respondents from other faith traditions, including atheists and agnostics.

With such stark findings, one would think Muslim communities are able and willing to tackle mental illness for those in need. However, studies also show that many Muslims in the U.S. feel the need to “cast the religion in a good light,” so as to not feed into the stereotypes and discrimination that we face. As a result, mental illnesses get brushed under the rug and almost completely ignored. Shaykh Suhail Mulla, resident scholar at the Islamic Society of West Valley in Los Angeles, said that Muslims won’t seek out mental health services if they fear that their religious identity might be threatened. This fear also impacts Muslims from other identity intersections, particularly queer and trans Muslims who face additional hardships due to a lack of LGBTQ+ inclusivity in the broader Muslim community. Dr. Farha Abbasi, a psychiatry professor at the University of Michigan, said that Muslim teachings support seeking mental health care, and the Quran — the holy book of Islam — emphasizes mental wellness. 

This BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Month, I urge my Muslim brothers and sisters, my brown friends and family, and all immigrants and children of immigrants to understand that mental illness is a widely shared human experience by people of every walk of life. It is not shameful to have depression or anxiety, and our experiences as Muslims in America of all genders, sexualities, and backgrounds need to be addressed and discussed more openly so we can heal and raise a generation of healthier, happier Muslims.