Meeting the mental health needs of American Muslim patients

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Nearly 3.5 million adherents to the religion of Islam (Muslims) live in the United States, and this number is projected to more than double to 8.1 million by 2050.1 As of 2017, an estimated 58% of American Muslims were immigrants, but nearly 25% were born in the United States to parents who also were US-born, including many African American Muslims.1 American Muslims face a rise of Islamophobia, hate crimes, and discrimination at school, work, and the communities in which they live.2 This population may experience feelings of anger as well as rejection and abandonment by the country they call home. They may also wrestle with conforming to American social norms while maintaining their Muslim identity.

When providing psychiatric care to American Muslim patients, clinicians need to understand these patients’ specific stressors. American Muslim patients may experience a variety of mental health conditions, including posttraumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, adjustment disorder, and somatization.2 Unfortunately, American Muslims may be less likely to seek psychiatric help because the stigma of mental illness remains a barrier to care in this community.3 In addition, entrenched cultural beliefs about mental illness may discourage many from seeking treatment. Because of a paucity of data on the psychiatric care of American Muslim patients, there is a great need to understand how to treat this vulnerable, often marginalized population.

Suggestions for improving care

Based on my clinical experience, I recommend the following practices for clinicians to consider when caring for American Muslim patients:

  • Ensure that your assessment accounts for religious and cultural factors to help understand your patient’s perception of his/her illness.4 Consider using the DSM-IV Outline for Culture Formulation,5 DSM-5 Cultural Formulation Interview,6 or the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Practice Parameter for Cultural Competence in Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Practice.7
  • Be sensitive to your patient’s family hierarchy and history. Often, extended family members will accompany an American Muslim patient for input and support during a clinical visit.
  • Provide appropriate psychoeducation, because some patients may shun medication, especially those who think that medication should be reserved for severe illness that requires long-term inpatient stays.
  • Listen for somatic symptoms that may mask distress.8
  • Be mindful of your patient’s preferences regarding gender roles. For example, a female patient may prefer to receive care from a female clinician.
  • Align therapy with your patient’s religious and cultural beliefs. Some research shows that for Muslim patients, modified short-term psychodynamic therapy fares better than classic long-term psychoanalysis.9 Therapy should focus on family dynamics, conflicts, and relationships.9
  • Consider employing cognitive-behavioral therapy, solution-focused therapy, modeling, and behavioral techniques such as behavioral modification, systemic desensitization, and flooding because these may be effective for Muslim patients.9,10
  • Suggest guided imagery and relaxation techniques because some Muslim patients may find that these could be a natural extension of prayer and meditation.9
  • Work with local Imams (Muslim spiritual leaders) to recognize mental illness, overcome stigma in the community, dispel misinformation, and refer patients.11
  • If the patient has a “traditional healer,” such as a Sheikh or Imam, understand the extent of this individual’s involvement. Some healers may tell patients that mental illness is a problem of faith or being possessed by a spirit (ie, “jinn” or Satan-like spirits).
  • Use an interpreter if English is not the patient’s primary language.
  • Respect the patient’s religious practices. When possible, offer alternative treatments to medication formulations that include pork (most gelatins). Also, patients may want to adjust their medication schedule during Ramadan, when many Muslims fast from dawn to dusk.

Future goals: Increasing access, reducing stigma

More research on the mental health needs of American Muslim patients is needed, especially as discrimination and hate crimes against this population continue to rise. Clinicians should tailor their assessments and recommended treatments to these patients’ preferences, and address how religious and cultural connectedness may impact their patient’s mental health. Increasing access to services and reducing stigma associated with mental health care are critical for improving outcomes among Muslim patients.

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